Over the last two weeks in Eastleigh, UKIP forced home the message that uncontrolled immigration is an inevitable consequence of the UK’s membership of the EU. It's time for progressives to leave the bunker, stop sounding weak, introspective and contrite and get out there and argue the case for migration.
Over the last two weeks in Eastleigh, UKIP forced home the message that uncontrolled immigration is an inevitable consequence of the UK’s membership of the EU.
This populist tactic was a decisive factor in UKIP’s increased vote. The Conservatives, beaten to third place, have responded by heralding the latest immigration statistics, published yesterday.
These show net migration – the balance between immigration and emigration – has fallen by a third since 2010.
It is now down to an annual 163,000, mostly as a consequence of a reduction in student migration.
Today’s Sun praised the government for finally gaining control of immigration. Over the next months we can also expect the Conservatives to stress that that they have fulfilled their manifesto commitment on net migration.
In contrast, Labour’s position looks weak. Over the last year Miliband and others have started to talk about immigration, most recently in a December speech in south London. But a constant throughout has been apologies from Labour about its past immigration policy.
Next week Yvette Cooper will make a keynote speech on immigration in which she promises to “set out Labour’s thinking on past mistakes.”
A narrative has emerged that the previous government disastrously under-estimated the numbers of Poles and other eastern Europeans who would arrive in the UK after the accession of the ten new member states in 2004. This mistake resulted in the UK deciding to open its labour market, with catastrophic consequences for the white working class.
This is a narrative that is being continually reinforced by Labour in its endless apologies for decisions made in 2004. The Conservatives also hammer home this message, relentlessly, and can now point to their success in cutting net migration.
Another act of contrition by Cooper will only reinforce this version of history and further serve to make Labour seem hopelessly weak.
Maybe it is time for Labour to review its strategy.
After May 2004, EU migrants moved here because, in boom years, there were many unfilled vacancies. As can be seen from the graph below, those sectors of the economy that employed the greatest proportion of migrants were those with the highest vacancy rates.
Without these workers, many businesses would have gone under, with disastrous local consequences. At this time it was not possible to recruit UK workers in sufficient numbers to fill empty jobs.
Should Labour be so defensive about a stark economic reality?
Vacancies as a % of sector’s workforce vis-à-vis % of foreign born workers arrived in the last 10 years, 2007
Source: Author calculations from Labour Force Survey, 2007
Today vacancies have shrunk and migration from eastern Europe has slowed. Yesterday’s migration statistics show that net migration from eastern Europe fell to 62,000, the lowest level since the expansion of the EU in 2004.
Labour commentators have stressed that if a future Labour government commits to job training and to upholding the employment rights of UK workers, then UK employers will not face recruitment difficulties and the demand for migrant labour will be scaled back.
This was a view articulated by Miliband in his December speech.
Of course, work-related training and employment rights are important policy objectives in themselves, but evidence suggesting that their extension will reduce immigration is slim. Migrant workers now work right across the economy, with the latest Workplace Employment Relations Survey showing that 26 per cent of workplaces are employing non-UK workers.
Data from the same survey shows that non-UK workers are no more likely that those from the UK to work for ‘bad’ employers who rely on agency staff, do not undertake training or recognise trade unions.
The presence of migrants right across the UK’s workplaces is just one aspect of a globalisation, as is the emigration of UK nationals to take employment in other EU member states and beyond.
Over five million UK nationals live abroad, the vast majority of them of working age. The activities of the British diaspora extend the UK’s economic and political influence overseas, conditions which benefit everyone in the UK.
In today’s world, both immigration and emigration are normal, inevitable and key to the UK’s relative economic success. Britain’s wealth, in part, has been generated by the contribution of generations of immigrants and emigrants.
It’s time to celebrate this, and face up to the reality of globalisation.
It is time for progressives to leave the bunker, stop sounding weak, introspective and contrite and get out there and argue the case for migration.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.