In defence of Maurice Glasman

He has spoken up for the low-paid workers whose standard of life has been forced down by excessive i

In the last two issues of the New Statesman, Maurice Glasman is to be found apologising for his remarks about immigration, but many rank and file Labour voters will be wondering why. He said nothing that was untrue or lacking in balance. As a long-standing campaigner for a living wage he will have been acutely aware that opening the borders to a sudden increase in newcomers has driven wages down, especially for the least well paid.

The same point has been repeatedly made by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian, and so far she has not been forced to recant in public. Here she is in 2005:

"The implication is that these Londoners are so thick or lazy that we need cheap foreigners for catering, caring and cleaning who can take low pay while sleeping on friends' floors in this expensive city. But what part of the good society does this help to create? It makes restaurants cheap for the well-off and lowers taxes, while public services are manned by those on sub-survivable pay."

And again in 2006: "Poor families in this most expensive city can't pay for childcare, and compete for jobs with single migrants willing to take less than a living wage. But the rich prosper: restaurants, cleaners and all other services are cheaper because wages are low."

And once more in 2010, when she criticised Gordon Brown for "boasting frequently" about low wage inflation growth, by which he meant: "Foreigners willing to work harder for less do hold down pay, especially in the care and hospitality sectors still not covered by the Gangmasters Act." Immigration is "wonderful for employers and the affluent wanting cheap nannies, cleaners and plumbers - bad for the unemployed, many of whom would have been skilled-up for the jobs otherwise.' Controlling the borders, she thought, was 'a first duty of government. Sudden and unexpected immigration has abruptly changed the nature of some communities."

Maurice Glasman was speaking with the authentic voice of Labour voters. About three quarters of Labour voters want tighter immigration controls. A YouGov poll in May this year found that 76 per cent of Labour voters supported government measures 'to limit the number of economic migrants from outside the EU who are entitled to work in Britain'. Only 18 per cent were opposed. The trouble is that the 18 per cent includes the people who write articles for the New Statesman and the 76 per cent have to rely on the bravery of people like Maurice Glasman.

Back in August 2006 Home Secretary, John Reid, in a speech at Demos tried to take the emotion out of the debate: '"n my view mass migration and the management of immigration is now the greatest challenge facing all European governments. We have to get away from the notion that anyone who wants to talk about immigration is somehow a racist." But the issue still makes some of the more sensitive party intellectuals so uncomfortable that they would rather not think about it. And yet most developed countries have an immigration policy, not least because the sheer weight of numbers can cause problems. The more crowded the country, the more necessary is an immigration policy. The UK is already one of the most densely populated parts of the world, with double the population density of France and eight times that of America. England, on its own, is more densely populated than India. The consequences for house prices, traffic jams, school places, wages, and hospital waiting lists are there for all to see.

A UK study for the Low Pay Commission looked at the impact of immigration between 1997 and 2005 and concluded that the arrival of economic migrants benefited workers in the middle and upper part of the wage distribution, but placed downward pressure on the wages of workers on lower levels of pay. Over the period, wages at all points of the wage distribution increased but the UCL study concluded that wages in the lowest quartile would have increased faster without the effect of immigration. They estimated that for each one per cent increase in the ratio of immigrants to natives in the working age population there was a 0.5 per cent decrease in the wages of the lowest tenth of workers.

It is often said that immigrants will do the jobs British people don't want, but this question is entirely a matter of pay and conditions. People will do dirty or hard jobs if they are paid enough. Employers want to pay as little as possible; whereas workers understandably want a living wage. The campaign for a London Living Wage is seeking only £7.85 -- not much to ask for. The inescapable fact is that immigration produces winners and losers - and the poorest members of society have been the losers.

The impact on housing has also been severe, especially in London. First time buyers have been priced out of the market. Immigration has not been the only factor, but it has had a major and decisive influence on prices. We can compare the ratio of average prices to average incomes in the UK over time. In 1980 the ratio was 2.3, but by 2009 during the height of mass immigration, the ratio had nearly doubled to 4.5. Take Tower Hamlets. It is possible to compare the average price of houses in the lowest quartile of the distribution with the average wage for the lowest quartile of earners. In 1997 the ratio was 3.7. In 2009 it was 7.6, double the 1997 figure.

Such realities no doubt explain why opinion surveys consistently show a majority against mass immigration. A YouGov survey in 2008 asked whether immigration should be 'stopped', 'reduced but not stopped', or 'increased': 23 per cent said it should be stopped; 61 per cent thought it should be reduced but not stopped and only 2 per cent that it should be increased. Even among 'recent immigrants' there was a slight majority in favour of reduction: 3 per cent thought it should be stopped; 48 per cent reduced but not stopped, a total of 51 per cent. Only 10 per cent wanted an increase. That result is not as paradoxical as it may seem at first sight. Many people on low incomes are recent immigrants.

Instead of being pressurised into public recantations, Maurice Glasman should be given a special Labour party medal for the moral courage he has displayed in speaking up for the powerless low-paid workers whose standard of life has been forced down by excessive immigration.

David Green is Director of Civitas

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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