Shine A Light

Four Labour myths that scapegoat immigrants

How much distance is there really between Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers”? 

Kojo Kyerewaa
17 December 2012

Ed Miliband's speech on integration was a more nuanced and positive take on immigration than Theresa May's speech earlier last week. He had many warm words about identifying with migrants and celebrating Britain's diversity. You could see why many Labour policy wonk-types were pleased with it, there was some positive stuff, like offering more English language training for new workers and cracking down on slum-lords. However these were small mercies in a discourse that is framed against the freedom of movement. While it was dressed in less hostile language, the focus of debate still has the migrant as a source of significant social and economic ills.

Most people won't read or hear Ed Miliband's speech, but they'll see the headlines and could surmise that immigrants, if left to their own devices, will eventually ruin Britain. Labour press officers spun the main message to be that immigrants have to learn English, New Labour was "too soft" on immigration and as a result, segregation has become a serious threat to Britain. One Nation Labour will empathise with the xenophobia of The Daily Mail and Daily Express rather than challenge it.

So while the Labour leader rightly addressed exploitative practices by employers and recruitment companies, he also deployed or hinted at four popular myths to show the obstacles mass immigration posed to his vision of One Nation Britain:

1      The indigenous community have well founded anxieties about immigration due to its real negative economic impacts

2      Public service delivery such as healthcare and elderly care, have been hampered due to poor quality of English by foreign workers

3      Communities have become increasingly segregated because migrants will not or cannot integrate

4      One Nation Labour should not repeat the ‘mistakes’ of New Labour on Eastern European migration and a cap may be sensible

These arguments lauded by Labourite Daily Telegraph columnist Dan Hodges as mature, nuanced, intelligent, are essentially wrong.

Myth one:  “Some of this anxiety is about where money is spent within communities, including benefits.”

This popular economic myth suggests that mass immigration has stunted wages, strained our public services and blocked job opportunities for British born workers. These claims have been intensely scrutinised by Migration Watch, the government's own Migration Advisory Committee and the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR). The evidence from all these sources shows that these claims are patently false. There is no serious case to answer as is acutely explained by Jonathan Portes here. In short, migrants proportionally use fewer public services and cost less than the UK born population, disproportionately pay more indirect taxes, and have a negligible effect on low paid workers. According to the IFS, the recent Autumn Statement will cost those on the lowest decile £3.34 per week. Compare this figure to the maximum probable cost of mass immigration to the lowest waged worker of £0.30 per week.

Myth two: “But older people of different backgrounds often say that the limited English skills of some care workers present them with difficulties.”

It is undeniable that health and social care workers need to have strong English language skills but Labour in 2007, in a move that was called a “policy contradiction”, stopped free English classes for working migrants. It is telling that Miliband would rather pontificate on a pensioner's anecdote on migrant workers' accents, than discuss the well-documented issue of care worker exploitation. Already an estimated 150,000 migrant care workers are not even being paid the minimum wage. These are poorly waged hard labour jobs, where a worker can typically be given 15 minutes to wash, dress and feed a person with Alzheimer's disease. A public discussion is needed on the corrosive pressures of the profit motive and bureaucratic drives for efficiency that are heavily placed on nurses and care workers irrespective of whether they are British-born or foreign-born. This is the true crisis in patient care. Measures against this would involve preventing skilled workers having their instinctive care, empathy and patience being pressured out of them. It is hard to see how a procedural focus on English skills will help resolve this.   

Myth three: “We did too little to tackle the realities of segregation in communities that were struggling to cope.”

The geographer Danny Dorling has wonderfully destroyed this argument, the 2011 Census shows that people of dual or “mixed” heritage are becoming the biggest ethnic minority. This shows that people from different ethnic backgrounds are mixing and forming couples more than ever. Economic inequality is a far greater cause of segregation than language or ethnicity. However here once again Miliband implies the fault is with the migrant’s desire to remain separate. Why doesn’t Miliband examine segregation that is caused by fear of the foreigner? The phenomenon known as "white flight", shows that white communities actively move away from their new migrant neighbours rather than migrants purposefully creating single ethnic ghettoes out of a desire to exclude themselves. Labour has form on stirring up the fears of the white vote, as evidenced by Labour minister Phil Woolas’s notorious election leaflet. (Unsurprisingly as Labour’s immigration minister during 2008-9, Woolas repeatedly defended the detention of 1,300 children-a-year with their asylum seeker parents.)

Myth four: “We will learn lessons from Eastern European migration and ensure maximum transitional controls in future.”

Perhaps due to their skin tone and Catholicism few suggest that Polish culture is detrimental to Britain. Economically speaking, Eastern European migration has been good for Britain. During the 2010 general election debates, Gordon Brown opposed the much disputed migrant cap, on the principle that Labour had implemented enough migration reforms, such as the Australian style points system and the citizenship and English language test for new immigrants. Ed Miliband now will consider keeping the migrant cap "if it works". His aim here is craven positioning in the migration debate; constructing himself as the honest and sensible saviour who will end the racial and cultural segregation that is fragmenting Britain before our very own tear-filled eyes.

But this isn't a debate, this is the acceptance of right-wing propaganda. Instead of the old concrete trope of "they are stealing your jobs and your houses", it is the now ephemeral affect "they are separating themselves and making you feel alien in your own country". This is meagre progress from Gordon Brown's use of the BNP slogan, "British Jobs for British Workers", so while the BNP can't endorse this nuanced argument, UKIP happily could.

Britain doesn't have an immigration problem, it has a problem accepting migrants as human beings. When immigration is publicly debated, it is assumed that the freedom of movement for people is inherently dangerous, migrants are a menace who will destroy ‘British values’ if our politicians are not vigilant. Conversely, the power of Capital to disrupt lives, destroy communities and decimate public services is ignored and unexamined. This is what One Nation Labour is offering.

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