How Miliband can take the heat out of the immigration debate

The Labour leader must be truly ambitious on pay and working conditions.

Immigration played a key part in Labour’s defeat in 2010, becoming the frame through which many people comprehended and linked together a vortex of economic and social anxieties. Before the election, Ipsos MORI found that just six per cent of those concerned by immigration thought Labour were the best party on the issue. But Labour under Ed Miliband is never going to win a head-to-head contest that focuses narrowly on immigration numbers. Trying to out-flank the Tories to the right would simply lack authenticity and plausibility, and further alienate people from politics.

The Labour leader must also side-step a trap the Tories would like to set, where he gets positioned as a soft, metropolitan liberal. Miliband may be more softly spoken than the tough, no-nonsense home secretaries of the mid New Labour years, but his views on immigration should not be mistaken for permissiveness. His generation have no appetite for a 1980s-style cult of victimhood.

Instead, Miliband is reaching towards a policy for immigration that may include a dose of social liberalism, but also views migration through two other lenses – both of which are key to his worldview more widely: his prioritisation of economic inequality, and an emphasis on strong communities as vehicles for morality, culture and connection. Miliband can talk about people’s immigration concerns but also quickly widen-out the conversation, to take it into terrain where he can push home an advantage, using his egalitarian and communitarian convictions.

The challenge for the left, is to create the conditions in which immigration concerns can subside so that they no longer taint other political debates. In thirteen years of government, Labour learnt that concerns about immigration will not dissipate if you simply ignore the problem. Miliband has already been upfront about immigration in two important ways. First, he has loudly and publicly accepted Labour’s failure to anticipate the huge influx of central and eastern European migrants. Second, he has strongly criticised the coalition for failing on in its own terms, both in relation to policing the UK border and achieving its cap on net migration.

He can now argue (in a way that New Labour globalisers never could) that if migration is not working for the bottom and middle then it is beside the point whether it is good for GDP. The best way of saying that Labour is sticking up for low-income communities is by being truly ambitious on pay and working conditions. Miliband should return to the radicalism of his leadership campaign and embrace a national living wage and also push for sector-wide pay rates in migrant-heavy industries. In short, every job in Britain must be “good enough” for British people to want.

Alongside decent pay and conditions Labour needs a tough message that there will be a zero-tolerance on under-cutting by unscrupulous employers and be ready to pick fights with employers and agencies who recruit migrants first, over and above British unemployed. The party could consider placing new requirements on big business to take more responsibility for their supply chains or raise the prospect of discrimination claims where firms have all-foreign workforces. This would all tie-in well with a ‘tough-love’ message for people who are long-term unemployed; that Labour will guarantee the availability of jobs, but that everyone has a responsibility to accept them.

But Miliband also needs to go beyond the economic and talk about culture and values. He can avoid any talk of imposed assimilation – but he must still emphasise responsibilities and shared values, with respect to personal behaviour and to how people establish themselves in broader communities. When previously in office, Labour pursued this agenda with English language requirements and the beefed up citizenship process but these national rules alone are too abstract and transactional.

Labour needs to think through how to bring to life its instincts about migrants’ rights and responsibilities locally, in the context of place and communities. Miliband should explore the scope for ‘contracts’ – real and implied – between newcomers and the communities they are settling in. This would start with a much more hands-on role for local authorities, who should feel empowered to develop detailed plans in areas of high migration. Ideas might range from encouraging with poor English to take part in family education programmes through to mandatory requirements for newcomers to make (achievable) community contributions before being eligible for social housing.

Of all political issues, migration triggers the greatest insecurities and the most political distrust. Vagueness and good intentions will not do. But if Miliband is able to turn his ethos of responsibility into specifics, he can succeed in taking the heat out of the debate.

The Shape of Things to Come: Labour’s New Thinking is published by the Fabian Society on Wednesday 27 June

Miliband must avoid being depicted as a soft, metropolitan liberal. Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Show Hide image

Leader: The angry middle

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern.

Two months after the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, it remains conventional wisdom that the referendum result was largely a revolt by the so-called left behind. Yet this is not the full picture. Many of the 52 per cent who voted Leave were relatively prosperous and well educated, yet still angry and determined to deliver a shock to the political system. We should ask ourselves why the English middle class, for so long presumed to be placid and risk-averse, was prepared to gamble on Brexit.

Populism has long appealed to those excluded from political systems, or from a share in prosperity. In recent years, however, its appeal has broadened to young graduates and those on above-average incomes who also feel that they have not benefited from globalisation. The sense of middle-class victimhood has become a major strand in Western politics.

In the United States, middle-class anger has powered support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The former drew his activist base mostly from young liberals. And while Mr Trump’s success in the Republican primaries was often attributed to a working-class insurrection against “the elites”, exit poll data showed that the median yearly income of a Trump voter was $72,000, compared with a national average of $56,000. (For supporters of Hillary Clinton, the figure was roughly $61,000.) It is not the have-nots who have powered Mr Trump’s rise, but the have-a-bits.

In the UK, similar forces can be seen in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, research shows that three-quarters of Labour Party members are from the top social grades, known as ABC1. About 57 per cent have a degree.

Mr Sanders, Mr Trump and Mr Corbyn have very different policies, ideologies and strategies, but they are united by an ability to tap into middle-class dissatisfaction with the present order. Some of that anger flows from politicians’ failure to convey the ways in which society has improved in recent years, or to speak truthfully to electorates. In the UK and much of the West, there have been huge gains – life expectancy has risen, absolute poverty has decreased, teenage pregnancy has fallen to a record low, crime rates have fallen, and huge strides have been made in curbing gender, sexual and racial discrimination. Yet we hear too little of these successes.

Perhaps that is why so many who are doing comparatively well seem the most keen to upset the status quo. For instance, pensioners voted strongly to leave the EU and are the demographic from which Ukip attracts most support. Yet the over-65s are enjoying an era of unprecedented growth in their real incomes. Since 2010, the basic state pension has risen by over four times the increase in average earnings. 

Among young people, much of their anger is directed towards tuition fees and the iniquities of the housing market. Yet, by definition, tuition fees are paid only by those who go into higher education – and these people receive a “graduate bonus” for the rest of their lives. Half of school-leavers do not attend university and, in a globalised world, it is their wages that are most likely to be undercut by immigration.

However, we should not be complacent about the concerns of the “angry middle”. The resentment exploited by Donald Trump is the result of 40 years of stagnant median wages in the United States. In Japan and Germany, median wages have not increased in the past two decades. In the UK, meanwhile, the median income for those aged 31-59 is no greater than it was in 2007, and those aged 22-30 are 7 per cent worse off, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

To compound the problem, the wealthy keep getting wealthier. In 1980, American CEOs were paid 42 times the wage of the average worker. They are now paid 400 times as much. In the UK, the share of household income going to the top 1 per cent has more than doubled since 1979. Because of our hyperconnected, globalised media culture, we see more of the super-rich, fuelling feelings of resentment.

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern, with voters oscillating between populists of the left and the right. The political centre is hollowing out. Rather than pander to the populists, we must do more to quell the politics of victimhood by addressing the root of this corrosive sense of grievance: entrenched inequality. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser