The Blair approach to immigration is neo-liberal rather than social democratic.
The Blair approach to immigration is neo-liberal rather than social democratic
So the left agrees with Tony Blair. I’ll say that again so it sinks in: the left agrees with Tony Blair.
Or at least it does on UKIP. On how to deal with the rise of Nigel Farage’s Eurosceptic ‘peoples’ army’, the former prime minister has called on Labour leader Ed Miliband to confront UKIP head on, saying that Labour will not gain anything if it tries to ape “nasty and unpleasant” UKIP.
The former Labour leader said:
“For the Labour party, if it tries to follow UKIP either on its anti-European platform or, even worse frankly, on its anti-immigrant platform, all that will happen is that it will confuse its own supporters and will not draw any greater support.”
This sounds an awful lot like the view of the mainstream liberal left when it comes to defeating UKIP: nothing is to be gained from sounding ‘tough’ on immigration; you can’t out UKIP UKIP; and concerns about immigration are really code for concerns about other things like housing and jobs.
The mistake would be to assume to two positions – that of Blair and that of the left – are the same. They aren’t. They sound similar, but they depend on a radically different view of those at the bottom of the labour market.
The Blair approach is similar to that of the enlightened (but self-interested) business community. This is the globalist, open borders approach that views the free movement of labour on a par with the free movement of capital. Business likes it because it ensures an unlimited supply of labour from Europe with low expectations of pay and conditions. The left likes it because it sounds superficially liberal: businesses can relocate where they like, so why not people?
And as a long-term policy goal I would agree that this is a state of affairs that we should work towards. The best side of globalisation is surely the ability to go and lay down roots wherever you like.
However the Blair approach should not necessarily be the approach of the left. There is some evidence that the free movement of people has a negative impact on those at the lower end of the labour market (at the same time it tends to benefit those further up). As the independent Migration Observatory puts it:
“UK research suggests that immigration has a small impact on average wages of existing workers but more significant effects along the wage distribution: low-wage workers lose while medium and high-paid workers gain.”
Therefore it isn’t enough for the left to simplify the immigration debate as a manichean argument between the ‘politics of fear’ and the ‘politics of hope’: there are nuances at work. Unlike the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Tony Blair, the left must concern itself with formulating policy which offsets the impact of immigration on the wages of domestic blue collar workers.
That doesn’t mean pulling up the drawbridge on fortress Britain, but it does mean recognising that immigration impacts some more than it does others.
Ed Miliband seems to understand that. What’s surprising is that much of the left seemingly doesn’t want to talk about it.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.