Jeremy Corbyn was on the BBC’s Today programme yesterday morning, answering questions about policy ahead of his party conference speech.
The main line of questioning was on immigration, something Corbyn and his team have had to think hard about in recent months.
For over a decade, all parties have been trying to marry policy with popular opinion on Britain’s migrants. Brexit has exacerbated this dilemma, what with the UK’s participation in freedom of movement teetering on the rim of the dustbin of history.
The problem is a familiar one. Immigration is generally a good thing, but in the eyes of the majority of voters – and in reality in certain pockets of the country – it doesn’t look that way. But for a party seen as “soft” on immigration, pandering to the harder line of rhetoric from its opponents merely reinforces the perception that there is a big problem – and validates its opponents’ policies.
The Labour leader has angered some in his party by insisting he won’t be drawn into making “false promises” on immigration numbers. This is the right decision. The Tories’ targets are arbitrary, set them up to fail, and do little to quell public dissatisfaction with the number of migrants.
An inaccurate government headcount, whether it’s successfully brought down or not, doesn’t translate onto your street, or local schools, or queue at the doctor’s surgery – just as a politician’s reassurance about the positive net contribution from migrants doesn’t. The macro doesn’t satisfy the micro.
And Corbyn calling for a cap would not only be unconvincing to voters, but a betrayal of his supporters, who have projected their liberal politics onto him and love it when he champions migrants. Corbyn himself has never really been into free movement; he’s unconvinced by the benefits of the single market. Of course he is. He’s a eurosceptic, and a eurosceptic who is suspicious of capitalism, to boot.
But having a leader of a mainstream party sticking up for migrants is an important thing; someone’s got to make the positive case, and it’s not like Corbyn’s one to compromise for votes anyway. Particularly as he builds his whole reputation on being a “man of principle” and a “real alternative”.
Rather than “false promises”, Corbyn’s given us a number of false problems instead. He speaks about the effect of migration in terms of depressed wages and pressure on public services. If he were in government, he would reintroduce a “migrant impact fund” (amount unspecified) to make up for these.
The first problem with this is that Corbyn knows as well as Boris Johnson and Theresa May and George Osborne and Ed Miliband and Tony Blair and Caroline Lucas and everyone else who’s attempted to make policy on this does that, actually, migrants overwhelmingly come here to work. Indeed, he underlined his stance against scapegoating migrants in a passionate passage of his speech yesterday. They don’t “take” people’s jobs, and it is not the number of them that brings down wages or drives up rents.
Where wages are kept lower than the national average by the presence of migrant workers, you will find numerous agencies that pay them less than the minimum wage, fail to give them proper contracts, and often advertise jobs solely overseas. Where you find these agencies, you find businesses happy to turn a blind eye to their recruitment and employment practices.
Where rents are driven up higher than the local average by the presence of migrant workers, you will find landlords who are happy to make money from people willing to live ten to a house, share bedrooms and have a poor quality of life.
Boston – the town in Britain with the highest proportion of EU migrants after London – is a textbook study of this. A high level of workers is needed for agricultural and factory labour. They aren’t stealing people’s jobs, and unemployment is relatively low. But those who benefit financially from their presence, and take advantage, are the ones who cause the consequent negative social and economic conditions in the town. Conditions that led it to voting higher than anywhere else for Brexit.
So Corbyn’s “migrant impact fund” is a nebulous fix to a false problem that not even he believes in. Even the name of it sends the wrong message, making migration sound like a spate of bad flooding, or noise pollution.
It’s our light-touch enforcement of employment law, and murky regulation of exploitative agencies that slip through its net, which need government money and attention. Perhaps “shark impact fund” would be a better name for Corbyn’s fix-all pot of gold.
Giving councils extra funds for public services is priced into Labour policy already (if the party truly is anti-austerity) – and should not now be linked to a negative idea of migration in a tacked-on attempt to to make something palatable for voters. It’s a bit like Ed Miliband’s “Controls on Immigration” mug. Simply giving something a new name, or stamping on a motto, doesn’t wash with voters.
Those who argue that the country has voted against free movement, and we should accept it, that may be so. But it’ll do the Labour party little good campaigning to get rid of it. Once it’s gone, and we’ve replaced it with some kind of points-based system, places with high levels of migration will still have high levels of migration – because those are the places where jobs need filling. It’ll either be EU migrants who manage to stick around, or other immigrants drafted in out of necessity having been assessed under a points-based system. If investment in these areas isn’t ramped up, residents will still feel left behind, and will still see migrants around them as the cause.
So what about the many pro-Brexit areas where there is a very low number of immigrants? This really is irrelevant. The problem in these areas is the problem the country over: lack of funds. Unless you invest, people will remain unsatisfied. And if people remain unsatisfied, they will continue to look for something to blame. Unfortunately, Corbyn is joining the legions of politicians who are handing them that easy target. And he is least likely to see the electoral benefit of it.