It is predatory employers, deregulated labour markets and the diminution of union rights that are the underlying causes of low wages and labour market insecurity, not migrants. DIANE ABBOTT explains
THERE are few more toxic political debates than the current one about immigration.
Immigration was made a key issue in the official EU referendum Leave campaign and members of all ethnic minorities are suffering from an upsurge of xenophobia.
Now, with the election of Donald Trump in the US, the anti-immigrant narrative is more powerful than ever — and it is harder than ever to stand up to it.
Increasingly too many people seem to think that the easy and pragmatic option is to go with the flow.
The idea is taking hold that moving right on immigration in post-industrial Britain could save the Labour Party seats. But this thinking is completely misconceived.
The reality is that political bidding war on being “tougher” on immigration is unwinnable for Labour. Instead, we need to challenge the terms of the debate.
When discussing this issue, we need to be honest that the word immigrant in common popular parlance doesn’t just mean someone who is subject to immigration control — it can mean refugees, asylum-seekers and even people like my son, a third generation British passport holder.
There is no way to magic people perceived as immigrants off the streets without pulling out of the international conventions that commit us to accepting refugees and asylum-seekers, or somehow nullifying the citizenship of existing British passport holders.
Also, in areas where voters are not so hostile to immigration — including those where we need to keep or win the votes of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) voters who are concerned by the surge in xenophobia — they are going to be baffled about what we are actually doing.
Furthermore, current Labour voters have a net favourable attitude towards immigration. This means that if Labour were to adopt a more hostile stance, it would alienate more of its current supporters than it would please them.
Nonetheless, it has sadly been true in recent years that too many people seem convinced that migrants are responsible for workplace insecurity or their failure to find a job.
This is hardly surprising in that this is the propaganda pumped out day after day by the Tories, Ukip and some of the mass media.
But while we cannot dismiss people’s fears, we need to point their anger in the right direction.
For this reason, it becomes extremely important that progressives try to ground the debate on immigration in the facts.
In the labour movement we need to be clear that it is no kind of solution for the underpaid and exploited to encourage them to think that another section of working people is their enemy.
It is time people stopped talking about immigrants as a problem.
Our job is to speak out, not in a naive idealistic way, but in a practical way about the benefits of migration, how it is a driver of growth and benefits our public services, such as the NHS.
The first fact we need to be clear on is that far from being a drain, migrants make a net contribution to our economy.
Migrants to Britain create twice as many jobs as their proportion of the population, 14 per cent versus 7-8 per cent. They are net direct contributors to government finances of approximately £20 billion per annum over and above anything they receive in social protection. The indirect fiscal effect is far greater, taking into account employment creation and other factors.
To give one specific example, the narrative of the immigrant drain on the NHS could not be further from the truth.
Without women like my mother, who immigrated to this country as a student nurse in the 1950s, Britain would not have an NHS.
And contrary to myths promoted by Ukip and others, it is predatory employers, deregulated labour markets and the diminution of union rights that are the underlying causes of low wages and labour market insecurity.
It is particularly hypocritical for neoliberals to wring their hands about the effects of migration on wages. Because, actually, it is the liberalisation of labour markets and the weakening of trade unions which are the real culprits.
What is true is that Labour market conditions (for all working people) have gone backward, empowering employers to indulge in the proliferation of zero-hours contracts.
What we need in this situation is politicians willing to legislate for a more level playing field between employers and employees. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership we unequivocally have this.
Labour is setting out an agenda so we can work with unions to ensure justice in the workplace. Under the current government, hardly any employers are prosecuted for not paying the minimum wage. When we write the living wage into law, the next Labour government needs to be active about enforcement.
We are also the only party standing up for our public services — far from Ukip being an alternative voice for working people, Paul Nuttall wants privatisation in the NHS and has argued that the “very existence of the NHS stifles competition.”
We cannot win the next election fighting on a Ukip’s agenda — there are no votes for Labour in trying to outdo Ukip on immigration. Instead all wings of the labour movement need to work together to combat the lies of the Tory Party, Ukip and some of the mass media.
Labour is now the biggest left-of-centre party in Europe. We can use our 600,000-plus membership to take the initiative in campaigning on these issues.
Otherwise, we are running the risk of going to a very dark place.
If we don’t come together and campaign hard, the gains the Labour Party, the trade union movement and BAME communities themselves have fought for over decades could be rolled back.
In contrast, trying to make migrants the scapegoat for ordinary people’s economic woes is not only morally and factually wrong, it can only benefit the hard right’s narrative and lead to a dangerous downward spiral in this debate, with increased hate the inevitable result.
- Diane Abbott is shadow home secretary and MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.