Labour leader Ed Miliband’s speech on immigration to the Institute for Public Policy Research on 22 June was both ill conceived and ill advised, pandering to the most regressive and simplistic logic regarding unemployment and social relations in Britain today. It comes on the back of his recent speech on Britishness, another ill conceived and ill advised intervention, which suggests either a political compass skewed to the right on both issues, or a concerted attempt to win support from a white working class which views its interests threatened by immigrants and the supposed alien cultural values they uphold. Perhaps it is both.
Regardless, for a Labour leader to pander to such reductionist views during the worst economic crisis this country has faced since the 1930s bespeaks a staggering lack of judgment not to mention analysis. In the process Miliband has left immigrants politically defenceless by all the mainstream parties, bolstering the narrative of the far right and distracting from the real causes of unemployment, low pay, pressure on public services, and the crisis in social housing.
On inequality towards the end of Labour’s period in office, Miliband said
‘At least by the end of our time in office, we were too dazzled by globalisation and too sanguine about its price.
By focusing too much on globalization and migration’s impact on growth, we lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth – and the people who were being squeezed’.
Here it should be recalled that it was under Labour that the 1000 wealthiest people in Britain saw their combined wealth increase a staggering 204 percent in ten years, from £97 billion to just over £300 billion. This was the demographic which benefited from growth during the boom years of globalization, the result of a conscious decision by the then Labour Party leadership to embrace globalization, privatization, and deregulation without addressing the sharp increase in inequality that took place as a direct result.
According to The Poverty Site, in 2008/09, during New Labour’s third consecutive term in office, 13½ million people in the UK were living in households below the 60% low-income threshold after deducting housing costs. This is around a fifth (22%) of the population. This 13½ million figure for 2008/09 was unchanged from 2007/08, and was 1½ million more than the low point in 2004/05. Moreover, it followed six uninterrupted years of decreases from 1998/1999 to 2004/05 and were the first increases since 1996/97.
In effect, poverty initially decreased during New Labour’s first two terms in power before increasing during its last.
A comprehensive report on inequality commissioned by the Brown government in 2010 provides further evidence of New Labour’s atrocious record on inequality. Titled An Anatomy of Inequality in the UK, and compiled by the National Equality Panel led by Prof John Mills of the London School of Economics, the report includes the finding that ‘by 2007-8 Britain had reached the highest level of income inequality since soon after the Second World War’.
The report includes research by Save the Children which revealed that 13 percent of children in Britain were living in severe poverty, and more crucially that ‘efforts to reduce child poverty had been stalling even before the recession began in 2008’.
Significantly, nowhere in the 460-page report does there appear the suggestion that immigration played a role in exacerbating income inequality during the period concerned. On the contrary, the report finds that
‘Compared with a white British Christian man with similar qualifications, age and occupation, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim men and Black African Christian men have an income that is 13-21% lower. Nearly half of Bangladeshi and Pakistani households are in poverty’.
Research carried out by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, who released its findings in January of this year (reported in The Independent), throws up even more significant conclusions. In contradistinction to the commonly held belief by anti-immigration groups and the right, the research found that
“the interaction between migrant inflows and GDP emerges as positive, indicating that during periods of lower growth, migrant inflows are associated with … slower [dole] claimant growth than would otherwise have occurred.”
Further, Jonathan Portes, the director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, argued that most of the rise in youth unemployment took place in 2008 and 2009, a period when the number of Eastern European workers entering the UK declined.
It is simply untrue that immigration leads to an increase in unemployment or inequality. What has led to both, and disgracefully under Labour’s last period in office given the party’s founding principles, has been a failure of government to curb the excesses of the rich and big business, whose unfettered and reckless greed has blighted social cohesion and led to the economic meltdown we are currently experiencing.
When it comes to housing, Ed Miliband said in his speech
‘rapid changes in population led to pressures on scarce resources such as housing and schools’.
This claim is contradicted by a 2009 report compiled by the Equality and Human Rights Commission into Social Housing Allocation and Immigrant Communities. Its authors, Jill Rutter and Maria Latorre, write in the report’s Executive Summary that
‘New migrants to the UK over the last five years make up less than two per cent of the total of those in social housing. Some 90 per cent of those who live in social housing are UK born. Most of the newly-arrived migrant group who occupy social tenancies are refugees who have been granted permission to remain in the UK. This group is numerically small in relation to the total of social tenants in the UK. For example, LFS analysis estimates that 19,200 Afghanistan-born persons were social tenants in the third quarter of 2007, out of 10,337,300 total social tenants in the UK’.
Further on the authors state
‘Analysis of social housing allocation policies showed no evidence that social housing allocation favours foreign migrants over UK citizens. But there is a small amount of evidence which suggests that they [social housing allocation policies] may, unintentionally, discriminate against ethnic minority communities who may also have less understanding than white groups, of their housing rights and housing allocation’.
Crucially, the authors provide an analysis as to the reasons for the mistaken perception that immigrants receive preferential treatment when it comes to the allocation of social housing.
‘Media reporting of issues around migration and social housing migration has great potential to set the public agenda. Anti-migration messages are more consistent than pro-migration messages and are often ‘common sense’ – for example, migrants put pressure on social housing. Myth-busting exercises about social housing allocation, conducted by local authorities or other interested parties, are unlikely to change public misconceptions about housing allocation’.
Ed Miliband’s speech on immigration reveals that he himself has fallen foul of this common misconception. Either that or he is guilty of rank opportunism in jumping on this particular bandwagon in order to increase support among its victims. Both or either of the aforementioned explanations are unacceptable when it comes to the leader of the Labour Party.
Rather than pander to these regressive views and common misconceptions that clearly exist among many ordinary working people, the Labour Party has a duty to defend immigrants by offering an analysis that is shorn of falsehood and urban myth. As leader of the party, Ed Miliband in particular is tasked with imparting a progressive vision which challenges the received truths of the right, including the right wing media, regardless of the traction these received truths have gained within working class communities.
Making matters worse when it comes to Ed Miliband’s analysis of the crisis in social housing in Britain is that by now there is no doubt whatsoever as to its underlying cause. The Thatcher government’s Right-To-Buy legislation of the 1980s decimated council housing stocks throughout the country, with no government taking meaningful steps to replenish it since. Instead, the failure of successive governments to ensure adequate supply has consistently been blamed on excessive demand. New Labour’s role in this regard again stands as an indictment of the values which the Labour Party was initially founded to represent.
Ultimately, if the Labour Party under Ed Miliband’s stewardship is to offer a progressive alternative to the Tory-led coalition government, it must break decisively with Blairism. There is no evidence to suggest that immigration threatens the welfare and livelihoods of working people in Britain. There is however a plethora of evidence, both empirical and historical, that an economy skewed in favour of the rich and big business does.