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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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