By blaming immigration, Labour risks confusing voters further

Ed Balls was right to say that Labour was wrong about immigration, but we must be careful to stick t

The voice of Ed Balls is the latest addition to an ever-growing chorus within Labour commenting on the impact of immigration on the party's electoral fortunes. The emerging conclusion is Labour went too far with immigration.

Balls wrote an article for the Observer titled "We were wrong to allow so many eastern Europeans into Britain". The piece concludes:

There have been real economic gains from the arrival of young, hard-working migrants from eastern Europe over the past six years. But there has also been a direct impact on the wages, terms and conditions of too many people -- in communities ill-prepared to deal with the reality of globalisation, including the one I represent.

The result was, as many of us found in the election, our arguments on immigration were not good enough . . . In retrospect, Britain should not have rejected transitional controls on migration from the first wave of new EU member states in 2004, which we were legally entitled to impose.

Balls is right that Labour was wrong -- but the fault lies not with the decision to open our labour markets to the accession states. It is instead pretty much everything else preceding and following that decision which was wrong, including much of the subsequent analysis.

It's worth noting that, according to recent statistics, eastern Europeans account for roughly 1.5 per cent of the working-age population. The proposition that this tiny minority of the population had such a significant impact on the wages, terms and conditions of "too many people" just doesn't stand up.

Of course, immigration could, in theory, reduce wages and conditions by increasing the supply of labour. But the economy in reality has responded to immigration by increasing the demand for labour.

Benefits

The question of the impact of immigration on wages has been thoroughly researched. Though conclusions differ, the overall view can be summed up in the following terms: overall, immigration has not had statistically significant effects on wages or unemployment either one way or the other.

Factors such as education, trade, outsourcing, demographic change and outsourcing all affect wages and employment much more than immigration.

Where negative effects on wages have occurred, they tend to have been experienced by previous immigrants, especially those with limited English language skills; manual workers in jobs that do not require proficiency in English; individuals on benefits or those otherwise marginalised in the labour force.

However, these studies do not take into account that these very same workers have also benefited from low prices and low inflation. They have also gained employment through the relocation of companies on account of the easing of immigration restrictions more generally.

Consider, for example, the evidence from the Migration Advisory Committee that Japanese companies such as Hitachi, Honda and Mitsubishi would have had to scale back their operations significantly if they had been prevented from recruiting Japanese workers. On average, for every one Japanese national, these companies employ 73 UK residents.

This being the case, it seems clear that the imposition of transitional measures on movement by the first wave of EU member states would not have dealt with the problems encountered by the constituents to whom Balls alludes.

Nor, it seems, would a further extension of the current restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals.

On the other hand, however, better training and education, better provision of English language teaching, reforming the benefits system, enhancing and enforcing labour standards for all workers, and eliminating labour-market discrimination would.

Proxy issue

So, why the antagonistic electorate? It is correct that globalisation and rising immigration result in transformation of communities, and indeed challenge their very identity. It would also be fair to say that the arrival of eastern Europeans in numbers that by recent UK standards are large did generate these sorts of feelings among some parts of the electorate.

The job of government, however, is not to sit back and simply point out that this is a regrettable fact of life -- as Labour did -- but rather to prepare societies for these sorts of transitions.

In this respect, Labour's performance was no more than an abject failure. At no point did it engage the electorate on the issue. It never explained the kinds of transformations that could be expected to take place in communities up and down the UK. It did not address the national impacts. Nor did it ever in advance speak meaningfully about the numbers of people who might be involved.

Labour also failed to put in place effectively the necessary social infrastructure, or a contingency plan for one in the event that its predictions of the numbers involved were exceeded (as turned out to be the case).

Migrants are not simply units of production, but human beings with human needs -- including needs for public services. Given that immigration is a proxy in particular for issues such as public services, Labour's failure to invest here, particularly with regard to affordable housing, was entirely unhelpful.

Of course, the party's failure to communicate the multiple benefits that migration has brought the UK also represents a great failing. Where were the speeches about increased investment and trade, reduced inflation, benign fiscal benefits, plugging skills shortages and increases in GDP per capita?

This was coupled by Labour's failure more generally to explain coherently its system for immigration control and the various mechanisms that existed to prioritise the interests of nationals: for instance, the resident labour-market test, applicable to non-EU nationals, and limitations on access to the welfare state and public housing by non-nationals more generally.

Its token acknowledgement here and there of the benefits of migration was insufficient, drowned out by its rather louder tough talk about immigrants.

The void arising from this was rapidly filled by groups such as MigrationWatch and the right-wing press. These groups have been remarkably successful in grossly exaggerating the scale of immigration and downplaying the multiple positives of immigration while focusing purely on its negatives.

The result was the manufacturing of perceptions by the electorate about issues such as wages, employment and public services which are simply at variance with the evidence.

The true failing in all of this is not the decision to expand certain types of immigration to the UK, but rather the cack-handed way in which our politicians dealt with it. The Labour leadership contenders and the current government would do well to take note.

Hina Majid is director of policy at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue