David Cameron delivers a speech on welfare in Hove, East Sussex, on February 17, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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What the Tories can't say about today's immigration figures: political failure is economic success

 The Conservatives' failure to meet their pledge to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands" is one of the best things to have happened to the economy. 

One might have thought that the news on immigration couldn't get any worse for the Conservatives - but it just has. The figures released by the ONS this morning show that net migration rose to 298,000 in the year to September 2014, an increase of 88,000 compared to the previous 12 months. In other words, the level is now nearly three times the Tories' target of "tens of thousands" (of which David Cameron declared in 2010: "If we don't deliver our side of the bargain, kick us out in five years"). Worse, net migration is now higher than when the government took office, meaning that the Conservatives can't even boast that the trend is downwards. 

What they also can't say is that while an extraordinary political failure, the figures are an economic success. That the UK is the destination of choice for so many migrants (immigration rose to 624,000, while emigration was static at 327,000) both reflects and reinforces its status as a centre of prosperity. Since immigrants are younger and more economically active than the population in general they stimulate growth and increase employment (currently at a record high; proof, if needed, that migrants don't "take" jobs, they create them). But the Tories' "tens of thousands" target, which is premised on immigration being a negative force, means they are incapable of telling this positive tale. After political humiliation, they have largely stopped talking about the subject on the correct grounds that doing so only aids Ukip (the only party promising to regain control of the UK's borders through EU withdrawal). 

Labour will assail Cameron today for breaking his pledge to the electorate but this is not a simple political victory for the opposition. The rejoinder to their criticism of the Tories' failure is "what would you do?" Ed Miliband has long emphasised his aim of reducing low-skilled immigration to the UK (partly through more apprenticeships for British citizens) but has remained ambiguous on the question of what level of migration is ultimately desirable. Like the Tories, Labour is torn between the awareness that more immigration is an economic positive but that it remains a political negative. The danger for Miliband, as he tries to simultaneously woo pro-migration Greens and anti-migration Ukippers, is that his balancing act struggles to convince anyone. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Trade unions must change or face permanent decline

Union membership will fall below one in five employees by 2030 unless current trends are reversed. 

The future should be full of potential for trade unions. Four in five people in Great Britain think that trade unions are “essential” to protect workers’ interests. Public concerns about low pay have soared to record levels over recent years. And, after almost disappearing from view, there is now a resurgent debate about the quality and dignity of work in today’s Britain.

Yet, as things stand, none of these currents are likely to reverse long-term decline. Membership has fallen by almost half since the late 1970s and at the same time the number of people in work has risen by a quarter. Unions are heavily skewed towards the public sector, older workers and middle-to-high earners. Overall, membership is now just under 25 per cent of all employees, however in the private sector it falls to 14 per cent nationally and 10 per cent in London. Less than 1 in 10 of the lowest paid are members. Across large swathes of our economy unions are near invisible.

The reasons are complex and deep-rooted — sweeping industrial change, anti-union legislation, shifts in social attitudes and the rise of precarious work to name a few — but the upshot is plain to see. Looking at the past 15 years, membership has fallen from 30 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2015. As the TUC have said, we are now into a 2nd generation of “never members”, millions of young people are entering the jobs market without even a passing thought about joining a union. Above all, demographics are taking their toll: baby boomers are retiring; millennials aren’t signing up.

This is a structural problem for the union movement because if fewer young workers join then it’s a rock-solid bet that fewer of their peers will sign-up in later life — setting in train a further wave of decline in membership figures in the decades ahead. As older workers, who came of age in the 1970s when trade unions were at their most dominant, retire and are replaced with fewer newcomers, union membership will fall. The question is: by how much?

The chart below sets out our analysis of trends in membership over the 20 years for which detailed membership data is available (the thick lines) and a fifteen year projection period (the dotted lines). The filled-in dots show where membership is today and the white-filled dots show our projection for 2030. Those born in the 1950s were the last cohort to see similar membership rates to their predecessors.

 

Our projections (the white-filled dots) are based on the assumption that changes in membership in the coming years simply track the path that previous cohorts took at the same age. For example, the cohort born in the late 1980s saw a 50 per cent increase in union membership as they moved from their early to late twenties. We have assumed that the same percentage increase in membership will occur over the coming decade among those born in the late 1990s.

This may turn out to be a highly optimistic assumption. Further fragmentation in the nature of work or prolonged austerity, for example, could curtail the familiar big rise in membership rates as people pass through their twenties. Against this, it could be argued that a greater proportion of young people spending longer in education might simply be delaying the age at which union membership rises, resulting in sharper growth among those in their late twenties in the future. However, to date this simply hasn’t happened. Membership rates for those in their late twenties have fallen steadily: they stand at 19 per cent among today’s 26–30 year olds compared to 23 per cent a decade ago, and 29 per cent two decades ago.

All told our overall projection is that just under 20 per cent of employees will be in a union by 2030. Think of this as a rough indication of where the union movement will be in 15 years’ time if history repeats itself. To be clear, this doesn’t signify union membership suddenly going over a cliff; it just points to steady, continual decline. If accurate, it would mean that by 2030 the share of trade unionists would have fallen by a third since the turn of the century.

Let’s hope that this outlook brings home the urgency of acting to address this generational challenge. It should spark far-reaching debate about what the next chapter of pro-worker organisation should look like. Some of this thinking is starting to happen inside our own union movement. But it needs to come from outside of the union world too: there is likely to be a need for a more diverse set of institutions experimenting with new ways of supporting those in exposed parts of the workforce. There’s no shortage of examples from the US — a country whose union movement faces an even more acute challenge than ours — of how to innovate on behalf of workers.

It’s not written in the stars that these gloomy projections will come to pass. They are there to be acted on. But if the voices of union conservatism prevail — and the offer to millennials is more of the same — no-one should be at all surprised about where this ends up.

This post originally appeared on Gavin Kelly's blog