by Noah Tucker
Speaking in 2013, the Labour Party’s (then) Shadow Home Secretary coined an apt phrase for one of the worst features of British politics when she declared:
“…we won’t enter an arms race of rhetoric on immigration – and we hope the Prime Minister won’t either.”
But in other parts of that speech, Yvette Cooper took the initiative in that competitive spiral of anti-immigrant (not merely anti-immigration) policies and rhetoric, including the pronouncement that British child benefit and tax credits should not be paid to EU migrants for their children who are living abroad .
And in November of the following year, Ms Cooper and Rachel Reeves, who was at that time the Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions, stepped up the ‘arms race’ with the declaration that the Labour Party would impose a two year ban on unemployed workers from other EU countries claiming JSA and other out-of-work benefits. Upping the ante for the Tories, David Cameron announced that EU citizens moving to the UK would be blocked from access (initially for up to four years) to in-work benefits including Tax Credits and Child Tax Credits. Dubbed the ‘emergency brake’, agreement to this proposal was later flagged up by Cameron as the biggest achievement of his negotiations with other European leaders prior to Britain’s referendum on EU membership.
Such escalating moves to deny benefits and services to migrant workers and their families exemplify the venomous and contradictory nature of the attitude to immigrants promoted by British establishment politicians. The policies and the rhetoric surrounding them are designed to rouse the indigenous or settled population against people from abroad; channeling dissatisfactions- which would more accurately be directed against austerity and rising inequality- into a nationalist vindictiveness which succeeds only in hurting the targeted group (particularly children, who are the beneficiaries of most of the benefits that will be lost) without bringing any gain whatsoever to working class UK citizens.
In their statements and public policy positions, right wing Labour politicians during and since the Blair years have employed the political method of triangulation- positioning the Party closer to the policies of the Conservatives in order to occupy the supposed ‘middle ground’.In practice, on some issues including that of immigration, the Tories then moved further to the right in order to maintain “clear blue water” between themselves and Labour, resulting in a competitive rightward stampede by both main parties; the Labour Party has echoed- or, worse, sought to sound more strident than- the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Conservatives; with the important difference that, unlike for the Tories, this has never resulted in any electoral advantage being gained by Labour.
In fact, the reverse has occurred, as the political beneficiaries of the discourse- which, encouraged rather than challenged, shifted in an even more xenophobic direction- have been the Tories and the ‘ultra-right’ parties. In 2015, Ed Miliband was persuaded to make ‘controls on immigration’ one of Labour’s five pledges for the general election. The Party’s election ‘pledge card’ highlighted the anti-immigrant proposals put forward by Yvette Cooper and Rachel Reeves, including the punitive declamation that “People who come here won’t be able to claim benefits for two years”-, fueling the falsehood that immigrants flock to the UK in order to take advantage of the benefits system, and feeding the corrosive myth of the ‘something for nothing benefits culture’.
To be fair, in the immigration section of the manifesto there were also a few worthwhile policies including “We will make it illegal for employers to undercut wages by exploiting workers” and “We will end the indefinite detention of people in the asylum and immigration system”, but these were drowned out by statements such as “We will require people working in public-facing roles in public services to speak English”: fanning prejudice by elevating a non-issue (or at the most, a miniscule issue) to the level of a general election manifesto commitment.
“Fairness” and divisive nationalism
Through the election of its new leader, the Labour movement has expressed, among other things, an overwhelming rejection of the Party’s involvement in that kind of politics – but it has not yet put a stop to it. This was clear from the response of former cabinet minister Alan Johnson, Chair of the Labour Party’s pro-EU campaign ‘Labour In for Britain’, to Cameron’s so-called ‘emergency brake’. Alan Johnson supported the proposal while readily admitting that it will do nothing to achieve its stated aim of reducing migration from European Union countries. The Daily Telegraph reported:
David Cameron’s ‘emergency break’ [sic] proposal to restrict benefits to European Union workers will do nothing to curb migration, Alan Johnson has said.
The former Home Secretary said that he supported the principle of preventing EU migrants claiming in-work benefits for four years, but did not believe in-work benefits were a “draw factor” for migrants.
Asked if the measures would restrict migration, he said the benefits curb “was never going to do that” […]
He told the BBC’s Today Programme: “The issue of in-work benefits is not a draw factor…”
“For British people the problem is not xenophobia, it’s not anti-Europe, it’s not any kind of racism – overt or covert; it’s a fairness argument, it’s that you should be putting something into the system before you draw anything out.”
Despite his denial of xenophobia, Johnson’s ‘fairness’ argument (chiming in again with Conservative rhetoric about the ‘something for nothing’ culture), feeds off and encourages a divisive nationalism.
As Alan Johnson knows very well (given that he was a minister in the New Labour government which introduced Child Tax Credits and Working Tax Credits) the benefits that will be impacted by the ‘emergency brake’ were specifically aimed at reducing poverty, hence are non-contributory. They will continue to be so, for individuals and families of UK origin ; thus for example where the worker has recently left school or college; was out of employment while caring for children; or indeed, is a British citizen who was previously living abroad; and who may therefore have paid not a penny into the UK income tax and National insurance system- nevertheless they and their children will be entitled to claim the full applicable amount of these benefits.
So the principle of “putting something into the system before you draw anything out” will only be imposed on the families of ‘foreign’ workers from the EU, not those of UK origin. How can that be based on a ‘fairness argument’? Conversely, how can it possibly be represented as unfair that a tax credit equally benefits two children whose parents have different countries named on their EU passports but who may work side by side, doing the same job and drawing the same pay, perhaps even living as neighbours; and between whom there are no differences in the amount they have, as individuals, contributed to the UK exchequer? Here the poison of nationalist ideology plays its part. The equal treatment is regarded as unfair because of an understanding that having contributed (or otherwise) depends not on what that individual or family has or has not done, but on on membership of one or other of two ascribed groups: with ‘we’ the British being assumed to have, as a community, already paid our way, whereas ‘the foreigners’, collectively, are supposedly drawing out of the system before putting something in.
In reality of course, migrants from the EU (including, when considered separately, those from Eastern Europe) make an overall tax contribution considerably higher than the payments they receive in state benefits, and their net financial contribution per person is also greater on average than that of people of UK origin.
Of course the ‘emergency brake’ will do nothing- nor is that its intent- to alleviate the problems which people commonly regard as being made worse by immigration from Eastern Europe: competition for jobs, downward pressure on wages, and pressure on the availability of public services.
That a policy proclaimed as a ‘brake’ on immigration is predicted to result neither in any perceptible reduction in immigration, nor amelioration of any of the problems ascribed to immigration, should not at all be seen as a failure of the policy, but rather as a major plus point for its originators. Success for the Conservatives, and other establishment and right wing politicians, on the immigration issue is based on balancing on the one hand, the political advantage won for them by fanning anti-immigrant feelings, and on the other hand, promoting the interests of the big companies and the very rich, who accrue big gains from the economic benefits brought by inward migration.
The context of prejudice
These benefits have a long and significant history. Skills and production methods brought by the Huguenots, who left France due to religious persecution, and also by Dutch workers and technicians who moved to England, were key in preparing the way for the early industrial revolution in Britain, fostering technological development in several important sectors including textiles, metalware, paper production and printing.
Of the industrial revolution itself, as Frederick Engels remarked in 1844:
The rapid extension of English industry could not have taken place if England had not possessed in the numerous and impoverished population of Ireland a reserve at command.
Noting that Irish workers (who were accustomed to lower rates of pay and worse living conditions than were the English workers) were migrating to the main industrial centres in England, Engels commented:
With such a competitor the English working-man has to struggle […] Nothing else is therefore possible than that, as Carlyle says, the wages of English working-man should be forced down further and further in every branch in which the Irish compete with him. And these branches are many. All such as demand little or no skill are open to the Irish.
The advantages that the influx of Irish labour produced in terms of the development of the English economy were not perceived, by the English workers, to result in improvements for themselves- rather, as Engels’ collaborator Karl Marx was to observe, there was much resentment by English working class people against their Irish colleagues:
Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life […] He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.
Today the advantages derived from employing workers from overseas also fall into distinct patterns; ranging from, at the higher paid end of the Labour market, access to a much wider pool of skills and knowledge; to, at the lower paid end, a supply of workers who are prepared to perform demanding tasks, often in uncomfortable conditions, for lesser rates of pay than most UK-born workers with comparable skills and qualifications would accept for such work. Much labour that is in the lower paid categories of employment is currently carried out by immigrant workers. Over a quarter of workers classed as ‘operatives’, and more than a third of those in ‘elementary occupations’ are of non-UK origin, a high proportion of whom are EU citizens from Eastern Europe.
However, despite their high concentration in lower paid occupations, EU migrant workers in the UK, including those from Eastern European countries, have on average a considerably higher level of education and qualifications than their UK-born counterparts- so, for a particular rate of pay, and in a given occupation, employers are in general likely to be accessing workers who are more highly educated when they hire non-British EU employees.
It is important to note that the current downward effect of economic migration on wages in some sectors is expressed in the context of a ‘liberalised’ labour market, characterised by reduced trade union power, private ownership, and cuts in the public sector. The immigration from Britain’s (former) colonies from the 1950s to the ‘mid- ‘70s, while much of industry was nationalised, trade union membership and influence were rising, and public services were expanding, did not stand in the way of the substantial improvements in pay achieved by manual and ‘less skilled’ workers in that period. It is notable that the upsurges in support for specifically anti-immigrant organisations and political figures during that period, associated with openly racist rhetoric, coincided with economic crises and events which, however temporarily, threatened that ‘forward march’ of working class living standards.
Another way to look at this is that the economic gains from inward migration- as with the benefits of other changes, for instance improvements in production technology- are shared more and more unequally, increasing proportions going to the owners of capital and the very rich, and less going to the majority, particularly the lower-paid, the more that society reverts back towards pure capitalism.
There is clearly a ready potential available for unscrupulous media outlets and politicians to exploit. But as surely, people’s direct experiences are not the main factor in creating a mood of anti-immigrant indignation, or, with the anti-immigrant narrative barely challenged, its harmful impact on the electoral fortunes of the Labour Party.
Research shows consistently that a high proportion of people regard immigration as a major problem for the country, but relatively few see the issue as a problem in their own locality or for themselves personally; furthermore, anti-immigration feeling among the ‘native’ population is lowest where there are relatively high numbers of immigrants, and vice versa. Indeed, it was in London, and in the other urban areas of England with substantial proportions of non-UK born residents, that the electorate, including the white, UK-born voters, gave big swings to the Labour Party in the 2015 general election.
Sharing the dividend
Thus there is potential also, for a Labour Party which renounces anti-immigrant rhetoric and punitive policies against migrants, and instead proposes to ensure a fairer distribution of the economic gains of immigration. Some recent party policies contain what could be described as the malformed seeds of such proposals; one being the Migration Impact Fund, which was set up by Gordon Brown’s government in 2008.
This was a shoddy initiative in three ways: firstly, the funding for it was raised by levying an additional £50 charge on the price of a visa for the (usually not at all wealthy) people from outside the EU who apply to stay in the UK; secondly, the amounts available to be allocated to local authorities were miserably low, with a meagre £30 million available per year for the whole of the UK. Thirdly, as the name of the scheme demonstrated, instead of aiming to redistribute the benefits of migration, it highlighted the downsides of immigration on local communities and provided a paltry, imperceptible sum to mitigate for these.
On taking office in 2010, the Tory / Liberal coalition abolished the scheme, although of course they maintained the £50 increase in visa fees.
In 2014 the Labour Party mooted a revival of the Migration Impact Fund; but, not daring to propose anything that might lay it open to the accusation of increasing public spending, the proposal was that the European Union would be persuaded to set up and fund the scheme on an EU-wide basis and from within the existing EU budget. Certainly there is a strong case for the EU to provide proper financial support to Greece and other poorer EU members that bear the costs of being the European ‘front line’ of the refugee crisis. But how and why an EU-level migration impact scheme would or should benefit regions of Britain- which is not only one of the richest countries in the EU but which also currently reaps a massive overall economic and financial benefit from immigration- has not been explained.
Leaving aside the ‘dynamic’ positive impacts of inward migration on economic development, and considering only the financial inputs and costs of new immigrants for the British government and public sector, a conservative estimate puts the net fiscal benefit to the UK of immigration since 2001 as approximately £2.5 billion every year. A modest fraction of this sum (let us say 20%), allocated to local authorities by the British government on the basis of a formula combining local levels of immigration and social need, would make a very perceptible difference to councils’ ability to provide decent services. Such a proposal (though without a suggestion for the amount of funding to be allocated) is supported by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.
It is crucial that the scheme is given a positive title such as the Immigration Dividend, as key parts of its function will be to make the benefits of migration more apparent, and ensure that these are felt via redistribution. It should be financed within the increase in public provision which is necessary in any case to recover from the effects of austerity; an increase which should itself be funded from higher taxation (both in the rate of taxation and the amount of tax actually collected) on the ultra-wealthy and big business- who have been, directly and indirectly, the biggest financial gainers from immigration.
More broadly, the Labour Party’s rhetoric and policies must show that united, rather than divided by nationalistic ideology and xenophobia, and moving away from the ‘free market’ towards nationalisation, expanding public services, the repeal of anti-trade union laws and the promotion of trade union representation, we can ensure that economic benefits, not just from migration but from other changes including increased international trade and advances in technology, are gained by working class people and are felt widely in society, rather than being accrued or squandered by those who already have the most.
Footnotes: This facile proposal will probably result in additional public expense rather than savings, as parents are likely to respond by bringing their children over from the home country to reside with them in Britain; thus the costs of the children’s schooling will be paid via the UK treasury.  On the other hand, in the longer term the denial of benefits to EU migrants is likely to become an additional ‘thin end’ for the wedge of the ongoing cuts and abolition of welfare benefits for UK citizens.
Yvette Cooper, speech on immigration:
Article by Rachel Reeves: