Why Miliband is wrong to apologise over immigration

Eastern European migrants didn't "take jobs" and drive down wages.

The contention at the heart of Ed Miliband's speech on immigration, which he will deliver later this morning, is that it is a "class issue". The Labour leader will argue that the influx of migrants from eastern European drove down wages and reduced employment opportunities for domestic workers. In a key passage, he will say:

Overall, immigration has benefits, but the thing we did not talk about was its relevance to class, and the issue of where the benefits and burdens lie. If you need a builder, it is good that there are more coming into the country and lowering the price of construction, but if you are a British builder it is less beneficial.

In view of this, Miliband will argue that Labour was wrong not to impose "transitional controls" on immigration from the 2004 EU accession states and will call on the government to do so when Croatia joins the EU next year.  In addition, he will promise stricter enforcement of the minimum wage and a doubling of fines to £10,000 for those that break the law (fewer than 7 employers have so far been fined).

Miliband's speech is well-intended and his aims are noble but he has perpetuated a claim for which there is almost no empirical evidence: that immigrants have undercut domestic wages and "taken jobs". Jonathan Portes, the director of the National Institute for Social and Social Research, probed this argument last year, using data from three major studies, and reported: "[We] found no impacts on native unemployment, either overall, or specifically for the young or low-skilled. Nor did we find any significant impact on wages, although the data is less conclusive." He noted, for instance, that there was no correlation between wage growth among the bottom 10 per cent and the arrival of migrants from new EU member states.

The belief that migrants take jobs that would otherwise have gone to domestic workers is a precise illustration of the "lump of labour fallacy": the notion that there is a finite amount of work available and that jobs must be shared out accordingly. In fact, the evidence we have suggests that immigration increases labour demand as well as labour supply, which leads to an increase in the number of jobs available. Had Labour imposed transitional controls on EU migration, the jobs that went to Polish workers wouldn't have gone to British workers, they wouldn't have existed at all. To suggest that we need to carefully weigh up "the benefits and burdens" of immigration is to ignore the evidence that it has overwhelmingly benefited the economy.

As I said earlier, Miliband's speech is well-meant. He is seeking to act in the interests of social justice. But in doing so he has fallen victim to the pernicious myth that immigration is a zero-sum game in which the migrant normally wins and the Brit normally loses. It is not, and progressives should say so clearly.

Update: Challenged on this issue at the Q&A following his speech, Miliband made the reasonable point that "people don't live their lives in the aggregate".  But that's still no excuse for reinforcing misperceptions, rather than rebutting them.

Labour leader Ed Miliband will say that his party "got it wrong" on immigration. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.