Ed Miliband delivers a speech on the deficit to business leaders on December 11, 2014 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband turns focus to immigration as Labour continues drive to address weaknesses

Labour leader promises a new law banning employers from undercutting workers' wages and conditions by exploiting migrants. 

After his speech last week on the deficit, Ed Miliband will deliver one on immigration today, another issue which Labour acknowledges it needs to improve its standing on. The strategic aim is to address the party's weaknesses now, clearing space to return to its strengths (the NHS and living standards) in the new year. "We're on the pitch on the deficit and on immigration," one aide told me. 

After last week's promise to cut borrowing every year, Miliband will unveil the second of Labour's election pledges. The speech will be made in Great Yarmouth, one of the party's 106 target seats and a three-way fight between themselves, the Tories and Ukip. In the Q&A that follows, Miliband will take questions from an audience of undecided voters. 

The headline announcement is a pledge to pass a new law making it a criminal offence for employers to undercut workers' wages and conditions by exploiting migrants. One strategist described it to me as a "uniquely Labour" approach to the issue with neither the Tories nor Ukip prepared to regulate the labour market in this manner. Miliband will say tomorrow: 

We are serving notice on employers who bring workers here under duress or on false terms and pay them significantly lower wages, with worse terms and conditions.

This new criminal offence will provide protection to everyone. It will help ensure that, when immigrants work here, they do not face exploitation themselves and rogue employers are stopped from undercutting the terms and conditions of everyone else.

The choice at the next election is whether we change our economy to make it work for everyday people or carry on with an approach which means it works only for a privileged few at the top. We can’t do that unless we deal with the undercutting of wages which is made possible by the exploitation of migrant workers.

Neither the Tories nor Ukip will do any of this.

They turn a blind eye to exploitation and undercutting because it is part of the low skill, low wage, fast-buck economy they think Britain needs to succeed.

 We won’t make false promises on immigration, like David Cameron.

And we won’t offer false solutions like Ukip—leaving the European union would be a disaster for jobs, business and families.

Instead, we will offer clear, credible and concrete solutions which help build a country that works for working people again.

To prove that a criminal offence has been committed, evidence would have to be provided that some abuse of power had occurred and that migrants were employed on significantly different terms to local workers. The proposed new law is modelled on one in Germany, where section 233 of the Criminal Code states that employers may not impose "working conditions that are in clear discrepancy to those of other workers performing the same or a similar activity". 

The pledge forms part of a broader plan to bring fairness to the labour market by increasing fines for companies that pay below the minimum wage, closing loopholes in agency worker laws that allow firms to undercut directly-employed staff and banning recruitment agencies from hiring only from abroad. It represents the third leg of what one strategist described as the party's "I-C-E" approach to immigration: Integration (requiring foreign workers to learn English), Contribution (limiting migrants' access to benefits until they have paid in) and Ending Exploitation. 

With these policies, Miliband, who will remind his audience that he is the son of refugees, believes he has found a way to address the issue that is consistent with his values and principles. He is also determined not to commit David Cameron's error of making unachievable promises such as reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year. Indeed, Cameron's failure to meet his pledge (having previously invited voters to "kick" the Tories out if he fell short) is one reason why Labour is more confident of fighting on this territory.  

But while most Labour MPs are content with the party's stance on immigration, some believe Miliband remains overly preoccupied with labour market regulation - a traditional cause of the left - to the detriment of more populist issues such as border control. They would like a clearer message around reducing the number of low-skilled migrants and protecting Britain from foreign criminals (policy issues Yvette Cooper raised yesterday). But Miliband's speech is an indication that, for both policy and political reasons, he intends to maintain his focus on the economic dimension of immigration. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

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