19 July 2011

How Blue Labour could talk about immigration in the real world

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Blue Labour must decide whether to further polarise our often toxic shouting match about immigration – or whether it is seriously committed to wanting a proper political conversation about the issues which affect people’s lives, writes Sunder Katwala.

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Britain Must Ban Migrants, the Daily Express’ front-page splash today is, on the face of it, a pretty fair shorthand summary of what Labour peer Maurice Glasman told Mary Riddell in a Fabian Review interview, published by the Telegraph yesterday.

So Glasman, the brains behind “blue Labour”, is now advocating by some distance the most restrictionist approach to immigration of any mainstream political voice in British politics. He proposes a much more restrictive policy than the government’s comparatively modest aim to cap immigration. Prime Minister David Cameron aims to have net inward immigration in the “tens of thousands, rather than hundreds of thousands” by 2015. The evidence suggests that will be challenging to achieve, but Glasman would like to take the bidding much closer to zero. And, unlike the government, which is committed to maintaining British membership of the European Union, Glasman advocates a fundamental rethink, and the UK’s departure from the free movement of labour – which, in the real world, almost certainly entails getting out of the EU itself.

Glasman’s comments were immediately critiqued from several perspectives. Matt Cavanagh of ippr has warned that the public are rarely impressed by sweeping rhetoric on immigration which is not likely to be followed up with action. Glasman’s comments are akin to Gordon Brown’s “British Jobs for British Workers” on steroids. Don Flynn of the Migrants Rights Network set out why the proposal faces formidable practical barriers, and questioned whether the apparent populism would prove politically helpful to Labour in any event. Several writers with broad sympathy to blue Labour thought this intervention went well over the top, while others who fear it offers a nostalgic cul-de-sac felt that Glasman had proved their point.

Glasman’s comments have all the hallmarks of a blue Labour provocation. Jon Cruddas, an ally of Glasman’s, recently described this as its “hand grenade” strategy of being deliberately provocative and antagonistic to start a row. But there are real limits to this approach, which too often now sees a leading Blue Labour thinker says something provocative and unworkable, gets criticised for it, and then claims that the critical reaction proves the blue Labour point the whole subject is taboo and off limits within the Labour Party and the broader cosmopolitan liberal left. But the stale shock tactic of self-caricature and provocative polarisation has now run its course – because it does little or nothing to help Labour to engage seriously with the difficult issues of economics, identity and belonging which Blue Labour wants to put on the agenda.

A debate about whether or not we are allowed to have the debate gets us nowhere.

Immigration is a major public issue – of course we should debate it. Like every major party, the Labour Party needs to work out what it wants to think, say and do about immigration. As a party which aspires to govern, Labour needs to come up with political arguments and policy proposals that they sincerely believe could and should be adopted by a British government, and that our society would benefit from. (Though that test is less pressing when framing the Green Party or UKIP manifestoes, this is a good test of integrity for smaller parties too). So we should expect contributors to that debate to come up with serious arguments. We might particularly expect that from those elevated enough to be Labour Parliamentarians, or even gurus to the leader.

Glasman’s immigration comments seem to me to fail that test. At one level, they are perhaps sincere in the sense that Glasman must clearly think it would be good to make a populist Pim Fortuyn-style “Britain is full” proposition part of the mainstream centre-left debate. But this strikes me as a highly rhetorical intervention rather than a serious one. There is no evidence that it has been thought through in any serious way as the basis for politics or policy. So I am left personally rather sceptical as to whether Glasman genuinely thinks it would be a good idea for a Labour government to try to close the borders, as as opposed to wanting to chuck another one of his hand grenades into the political conversation.

But I disagree with Daniel Elton of Left Foot Forward’s assertion that Glasman’s comments are the politics of the ‘dog whistle’ – “pure and simple”. While I believe that Glasman’s advocacy is misguided, I just don’t believe that he is motivated by making a coded appeal to a minority segment of racist voters. And I think it would be a significant mistake to make that the argument we end up having.

There are many effective critiques of Glasman’s argument. But critics should be clear that Glasman is arguing an anti-immigration position that is a legitimate one in British public debate. He has in effect raided the UKIP manifesto, and hardened up an argument made from the Eurosceptic Tory right (though some fundamental Eurosceptics, such as Daniel Hannan, advocate liberal principles on immigration).

The question here is not one of policing discourse, and whether or not it is legitimate to say it, but whether it makes sense to say it and to want it to happen too. The important question is whether we would advance or damage our national interests, our economic prospects and the cohesion of our society to adopt it.

Against those criteria, it seems to me clear that Glasman’s policy would be damaging and almost certainly impossible too. There are at least three dimensions on which Glasman would need to offer a great deal more clarity before it was possible to work out whether he had the intention of trying to be taken seriously as a voice on the immigration debate.

On economics, sweeping claims that legal and illegal immigration were used as a deliberate policy to hold down wages require a proper evidence-base about the impacts of migration on inequality and low pay. The existing evidence shows that there are impacts of immigration on pay at the bottom of the labour market – but also show that that Glasman much exaggerates the impact of immigration on low pay, inequality and economic insecurity, as Chris Dillow summarised yesterday. Given the importance of political economy to blue Labour, this could be a serious strategic mistake. Immigration is too easy an explanation which risks crowding out the deeper debate about the range of causes and consequences of the political economy we have.

On politics, there are a range of existing debates and real world ways in which EU members might advocate changing the labour market rules. Removing the general principle of the free movement of labour within the single market is not one of them.

On values, sweeping rhetorical remarks like “Britain is not the United Nations” also sound designed to signal that Glasman may want the UK to consider withdrawing from international obligations. I hope that is not the case, and that he is targeting economic migration and would continue to accept refugees. But if that were the case, then it is not clear what the UN-bashing is intended to signal. (Perhaps surprisingly, elsewhere in the interview Glasman backs the military intervention in Libya, using British troops and resources to protect the people of Benghazi, though that sounds precisely like the type of discretionary liberal cosmopolitanism he is arguing against).

There are a wide range of types of migration – does Glasman’s concern with the economic impacts of economic migration mean he would want to halt family reunion, for example? Is this Blue Labour hostility to immigration all about economics – or does it have significant cultural drivers too?

So, what could Blue Labour say about immigration?

It is not enough for Blue Labour to shout “we should be allowed to talk about immigration”, reinforcing (false) claims of a conspiracy to close our noisy immigration debate down, and seeking to polarise the debate into competing ‘open’ and ‘closed’ identity politics camps.

Yes, we should talk about immigration. So Blue Labour should be challenged to engage seriously in the immigration debate – and to develop a workable public politics of immigration.

Instead of just trying to shout blue Labour down, it might be more constructive to ask how it could seek to engage productively with a debate about immigration if it did want to put forward important political and policy options for Labour on this major issue, with the aim of being principled and fair to citizens and to migrants.

So how might a credible Blue Labour argument about immigration proceed?

It is possible to sketch some of the motivations and arguments which a serious Blue Labour engagement in the immigration conversation might involve. These would often resemble the constructive role which voices like Jon Cruddas and Jack Dromey have brought to public debates in this area over the last few years.

‘Close the borders’ is not the only thing blue Labour might find to say about immigration.
In fact, Blue Labour already combines the politics of “zero migration” with the politics of amnesty. Glasman’s experience of bottom-up campaigning with London Citizens means that he joins a fairly broad elite coalition, with the Liberal Democrats and Boris Johnson, in favour of the unpopular minority position in favour of addressing the issue of long-standing migrants in the UK.

Firstly, blue Labour would certainly be sceptical about whether cosmopolitan liberalism is going to be enough, and aware that liberals who celebrate diversity as a social good are a minority quarter of our society. (Most Blue Labour advocates belong to that social group themselves). Instead of simply caricaturing and goading liberals, blue Labour might instead seek to persuade them that they need to engage with economic concerns and anxieties among a large section of centre-left voters, and try to open a conversation about what would need to change to engage with those who either lose out from globalisation, or who fear doing so.

Secondly, a serious blue Labour approach would try to engage with the evidence about the impact of immigration to construct its response. It would not adopt the type of “lump of labour” fallacy of “they take our jobs” which makes intuitive sense to a section of public opinion but lacks a credible evidence base. A serious Blue Labour argument would know there are macroeconomic benefits of migration – but think it as important to recognise that the gains and losses are not evenly distributed, either in terms of income, class or place.

That would enable it to explain why arguments for the overall benefits of immigration have often fallen on deaf ears – because of a mismatch between the elite advocacy of intangible benefits for national GDP, against the expression of public concern about whether or not local impacts were being managed. Jon Cruddas has consistently noted the difficulties and unfairness in the fastest changing areas of allocating resources on the basis of census data which can be a decade old. That may seem a rather wonkish, academic “technocratic” point to Cruddas’ blue Labour allies, but technocratic in the sense of ‘workable’ need not always be a pejorative term in policy debate.

So what to do about an uneven pattern of winners and losers? Glasman’s approach is to reject the moderate economic gains of immigration (too intangible to be worth having?) in order to protect the interests of those who lose out. An alternative would be to promote a political renegotiation of how the gains are distributed, by challenging those who have an economic interest in liberal immigration policy to gain public consent for openness, including by paying more attention to compensating losers, or addressing anxieties. This might, for example, be another reason to campaign for living wages, and to promote other policies to reduce social inequalities of income and wealth. Levels of inequality are a product of collective social and political choices; not simply a function of policies on trade or immigration.

If Blue Labour wants to be about relationships, it would want to avoid and challenge a politics of polarisation or competitive grievances which sets poor communities against each other. Instead, it would look for the areas of common ground. It might campaign for better pay and conditions in the care sector – which might build a coalition between those interested in improving the current conditions of workers (both migrants and non-migrants) and making the jobs more attractive to native Brits.

On the European Union, blue Labour would need to decide whether it is in or out. The Glasman position certainly involves a “fundamental renegotiation” of Britain’s membership of the European Union. To put it more simply, it involves withdrawing from the EU. “Fundamental renegotiation” has almost always been a code, endorsed as a gradualist strategy by those whose preference is to withdraw from the EU. (This is what Trotskyists used to call a ‘provisional and transitional demand’). I have almost never seen calls for a “fundamental renegotiation” of the terms of membership by somebody fully committed to Britain staying in. Though Blue Labour has Eurosceptic instincts, I doubt that “blue Labour in one country” would get very far with a new political economy. Blue Labour might advocate significant reforms within the EU – but it needs to take multilateralism and building alliances within the EU seriously if it wants to go beyond critiquing the failures of our current political economy to proposing remedies.

Blue Labour would also need to decide whether its scrutiny or scepticism about low skilled economic migration can be separated from its approach to a range of different – from the students who want to pay fees at our universities; from issues of settlement and family reunion; and from issues affecting refugees and asylum seekers. On Britain’s international obligations, Blue Labour needs to decide whether it wants to reject these and to join those who promote the popular meme that Britain is a “soft touch” on asylum, or whether it wants to join those who challenge that claim, and who are campaigning to reverse the effect of punitive approaches which leave people in destitution.

So let’s talk about immigration.

But it is now time for Blue Labour to decide whether to further polarise our often toxic shouting match about immigration – or whether it is seriously committed to wanting a proper political conversation about the issues which affect people’s lives.

This article was first published by Next Left at www.nextleft.org. View it here.

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