Miliband turns a deeper shade of blue
Is the Labour leader 'pandering to racism' Peter Manson looks at Ed Miliband's June 22 speech
It would be easy to dub Ed Miliband’s speech on immigration to the Institute for Public Policy Research as a shift to the right pure and simple. But there was more to his anti-migration rhetoric than that.
The Labour leader was not appealing on this occasion primarily to those hankering for the old nationalist certainties. True, he mentioned in passing “problems with the pace of change in some of our communities”. He noted that “rapid changes in population led to pressures on scarce resources such as housing and schools”, which “brought to the fore questions about entitlements”.
However, the main thrust of this particular speech was directed, in true ‘Blue Labour’ style, to the party’s working class constituency - and specifically employed workers, some of whose jobs, pay and conditions are being undercut by non-union, often casual or sub-contracted, migrant workers.
For Miliband there are two reasons for this. First, the allegedly excessive pace of immigration under previous governments (including Labour); secondly a ‘minority’ of ‘irresponsible’ employers who take advantage of the availability of migrant workers to lower “labour standards”: “The ready supply of temporary, low-wage, low-skill migrant labour has further pushed some businesses to take a short-term, low-skill approach.”
He told a story about a factory in his Doncaster constituency, which “overnight” had “started getting eastern European workers from a recruitment agency”. A local Labour member had told him that these workers, who were sleeping “19 or 20 to a house”, were paid far less than the minimum wage - “It worked out at about £4 an hour.” So the local member “got the union involved to sort it out”.
Miliband commented that there are “lots of stories like this - of wages having been pushed down”. And it was not just a question of employers flouting existing legislation: “Even where there has not been illegality, there has sometimes been an immediate and direct effect on wages.” He mentioned construction and social care as sectors where there is a tendency to take on “foreign-trained workers, rather than to train up workers from Britain”. This enables bosses to “pay low wages and hire on short-term contracts”.
His solution? We “need to enforce the laws we currently have on the protection of wages”. After all, the introduction of the minimum wage was “one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour government”, so we should “increase the fines on employers who breach the law and pay below the minimum wage”. He talked of doubling the current maximum fine to a not quite so pathetic £10,000. When it comes to employers who undercut wages legally, however, he was rather more vague: there ought to be “tougher labour standards to do more to protect working people from their wages and conditions being undermined”.
While much reporting of the speech - particularly on radio and TV - focused on Labour’s (allegedly new) tough stance against mass immigration and Miliband’s insistence on the need for “proper control of who comes into the country”, others were not slow to highlight the pro-“working people” populism that Miliband has no doubt picked up from Maurice Glasman. The Mirror introduced its report by claiming that Miliband had “vowed to stop ruthless bosses from undercutting the minimum wage by taking on foreign staff”, while the London Evening Standard headline read: “Ed Miliband targets ‘nasty, brutish’ bosses who ignore minimum wage.”
For his part, Michael Deacon, writing on The Daily Telegraph’s website, commented: “On the one hand, Mr Miliband is trying to win back working class Labour voters who want immigration curtailed. On the other, he can’t afford to upset middle class Labour voters who interpret any criticism of immigration as racist.”
It was true that Miliband was “trying to win back working class Labour voters” and it was also true that he was trying to face both ways, as Deacon claimed. There were the obligatory references to immigration’s “benefits” - “economically, culturally and socially”. After all, Miliband pointed out, he himself is the son of migrants. However, “when I talk about immigration, I know I must be true not just to my mum and dad, but to other parents across the country … They worry about immigration. They worry it might make things harder rather than easier for them and their kids.” According to the Labour leader, the impact of immigration often depends on your “class”, with workers more likely to be adversely affected.
That is why “Worrying about immigration, talking about immigration, thinking about immigration, does not make them bigots.” It was here that Miliband was implicitly criticising his predecessor, Gordon Brown, for his remark, picked up by a live microphone, that Gillian Duffy, who had just publicly challenged him over migration during the 2010 general election campaign, was a “bigoted woman”. On the contrary, said Miliband, Labour had become “too disconnected from the concerns of working people”.
But in practice, it seems, the last Labour administration’s ‘lack of firmness’ over migration amounts to its failure to “limit the numbers of people who can come to work here for seven years after accession” to the European Union. And the only proposal he made to slow down immigration was: “… when it comes to the accession of future countries … we should take advantage of the maximum transitional controls”. So when Croatia (population: four million) joins the EU next year, Labour will perhaps shut the gate on some of the thousands who may wish to migrate to the UK.
Similarly, as Miliband pointed out in his speech, the Tory-Liberal Democrat cap on immigration is 20,000 a year, but 589,000 people - mainly from EU countries - arrived in Britain in 2011, who overwhelmingly cannot be kept out. But Miliband promised: “Of course, we’ll look at caps, limits and numbers ... And if there is evidence that measures work, we will keep them.”
In reality, none of the three main parties wants to close the borders to migrant workers. But all three want to control the quality and quantity of incoming labour according to the needs of British capital. Strict immigration controls also have a side effect that is beneficial for the bourgeoisie: it criminalises many thousands of ‘illegal’ workers who are employed as worst-paid labour and dare not complain about long hours and sub-minimum-wage pay, despite Miliband’s tough talk.
Nevertheless, migration is a convenient scapegoat, especially in these times of cuts and austerity, which can be blamed for the “pressures on scarce resources” that Miliband talks about - even though his own policy is for marginally less severe austerity and marginally slower cuts which would continue to exacerbate those scarcities.
All this explains why neither the Tories nor Labour propose measures that would seriously reduce the numbers of migrants (they are, of course, perfectly happy to impose inhuman conditions on them, in relation to permanent residence, the right to marry and live with a spouse, and so on). Apart from delaying the migration of people from Croatia, Miliband is proposing … nothing.
It is the same with his inane comments about recruitment agencies which are “effectively open solely to foreign workers” and “exclude local workers from their books”. Labour will “strengthen the law” in some unspecified way to prevent this. But there is already employment and anti-discrimination legislation in place covering their operation. So what will Labour do? Ban such agencies from recruiting overseas?
A Labour government would also “commission the Migration Advisory Committee to identify the sectors and regions … where there are more than 25% migrant workers.” This will “help identify where a problem might exist with skills. Then we can set about providing the training to fix it.” Wow.
Obviously Miliband’s Blue Labour guff about protecting “labour standards” cannot be taken seriously. He said in his speech that he wants to “build a more responsible capitalism”, where “owners, managers and employees see themselves as being part of one shared project”. In Miliband’s fantasy world employers do not attempt to “exploit” their workforce (everyone knows that only a small minority try to keep down wages).
As I have said, the speech does not represent a shift to the right purely and simply. In fact, compared to Blairism, Blue Labour is a move to the left in a narrow sense - that of recognising the existence of the working class, with its “ties of solidarity and community”, as Miliband put it. But these are “not built overnight”, he said, which is why the pace of migration must be slowed.
None of this represents a departure from traditional Labourism, which has always combined its appeal to workers with class-collaboration and nationalism. And I must say I disagree with Socialist Worker, which declares that Miliband’s populist rhetoric is “pandering to the anti-immigrant racism whipped up by the Tory press”. It is most certainly undesirable for workers to seek to defend ‘their’ jobs, pay and conditions from what they see as the incursions of outsiders, but this is fundamentally driven by sectionalism, not racist or any other form of prejudice. In this case the sectionalism is given an aura of respectability by the accompanying nationalism - after all, everyone agrees that we have to put ‘the country’ first, don’t they?
Nationalist sectionalism is the ideology of the trade union bureaucracy, which is why most union tops are so comfortable with the slogan, “British jobs for British workers” (a phrase employed by Brown, of which Miliband says he disapproves). Meanwhile, the task of all working class partisans is to stand firm against all forms of sectionalism, including nationalism - as well as other divisive ideologies, such as racism, sexism and homophobia. Our working class organisations must ensure that the slogan ‘Unity is strength’ is not limited to the individual workplace, trade or country, but encompasses workers the world over. That is why the Labour member in Doncaster was right to get “the union involved” - not in order to exclude eastern European workers, but ensure they were employed on the agreed terms. But, more than that, we must strive to build our working class organisations - political parties as well as trade unions - across international borders.
I further disagree with Socialist Worker when it states: “Miliband also blamed immigrants for driving down wages. This ignores the wealth of evidence showing no clear link between immigration levels and wages … In fact wages fell after 2008, just as immigration dropped off.” It is plain irrationality to deny the link between the use of imported labour, including ‘illegal’ workers, and low wages. Why on earth does the Socialist Workers Party think the capitalists favour the use of labour from eastern Europe and other low-pay regions? To point this out is not to deflect “the blame for low pay” onto migrants. Here I agree with Socialist Worker - the blame lies “with the bosses”.
However, if we are to effectively combat the capitalists, then we need to go much further than Socialist Worker ever does in its agitational articles. Instead of going off on a side issue by focusing on “anti-migrant racism”, the left needs to challenge the right of the ruling class to control migration. We say, if capital can move freely across borders, then so must labour. Workers must have the right to travel, work and settle wherever they choose.
1 . www.edmiliband.org/to-deal-with-peoples-concerns-on-immigration-we-must-change-how-.
2 . The Mirror June 23.
3 . London Evening Standard June 22.
4 . www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/9349667/Sketch-Ed-Milibands-immigration-seesaw.html.
5 . Socialist Worker June 30.