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Labour’s conspiracy of silence on immigration

Who's looking after the white working class? Credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Who's looking after the white working class? Credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

September 4, 2018   4 mins

One of the characteristics of the modern Left is its obstinate refusal to accept inconvenient truths, its unwillingness to look hard facts in the eye and adopt honest arguments in response.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the question of the consequences of mass immigration in working-class communities.

To argue that the impact has been deep and profound, and not always to the good, is to incite in a wide layer of Left-wing activists an unbridled fury. Emotion, boilerplate and cliché are elevated above evidence, logic and reason.

The bull-headed intractability of Left leaders in resisting candid debate on mass immigration borders on the criminal

The bull-headed intractability of Left leaders in resisting any sort of candid debate on mass immigration and its effects on those for whom they claim to speak borders on the criminal. Take the recent publication of a report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which highlighted that a tighter labour market, caused in no small measure by a slowdown in the rate of EU-born workers coming to the UK, had forced over half of employers to increase wages.

Did the leaders of the labour movement have anything to say about this? Was there any sense of mea culpa for having spent years attacking those of us who argued that EU free movement laws depressed wages? Was there hell.

They ignored this publication just as they ignored all previous research that established a link between higher immigration levels and worse outcomes for the lowest-paid workers, such as a Bank of England study which concluded that for every 10 percentage point rise in the proportion of immigrants, the pay of those working in semi- or unskilled services is reduced by 2%, and other research showing that UK immigration levels have had a significant effect on wage distribution, with medium- and higher-paid workers gaining and the poorest losing out.

There can be little doubt that, were the research to drill down specifically into those industries where the over-supply of labour was most acute, the effects would be found to be even more striking. It is no surprise, for example, that the hospitality and catering sectors have seen some of the sharpest increases in salary offers, following a post-referendum decline in the number of applications from EU workers.

It isn’t rocket science. Just as a surplus of anything reduces its cost, so most reputable economists, from Karl Marx to Milton Friedman, have agreed that an over-supply of labour depresses wages. A handful of us in the labour movement have been pointing out this simple truth for years, only to be regularly assailed by unthinking colleagues labelling us as ‘bigots’ and worse.

There was a time when support for open borders was a fringe position on the Left, for most mainstream socialists and trade unionists understood that, while properly-managed immigration could be a good thing, having absolutely no control over the numbers of people entering your country was inimical to socialist planning around employment, housing and welfare. They acknowledged too that, in facilitating the unimpeded movement of workers from low- to high-wage economies, open borders were a dream for bosses intent on reducing labour costs – a point refreshingly recognised by Bernie Sanders, hero to millions on today’s Left, who described a borderless world as a Koch brothers proposal that would make working people poorer.

This is Labour’s own version of ‘Don’t mention the war’, a symptom of the group-think that infects today’s Left from top to bottom.

In defending their position, Left-wing defenders of open borders will resort to the worst kind of sophistry and dishonesty. They will argue, for example, that so far as there is any impact on wages, it is only ‘small’ – as though that will come as any sort of comfort to someone on a low wage for whom, especially in these straitened times, every penny counts.

Or they will try to convince you that open borders aren’t responsible in any way for reduced wages; it is instead exclusively down to ‘rip-off bosses’ paying their workers too little – the equivalent of the ‘Guns don’t kill people; bad people kill people’ argument.

Or they will argue that regulating better, such as by increasing the minimum wage, is the answer – thereby missing two fundamental points: first that most workers already earn above the minimum wage and would therefore not stand to benefit in any way and, second, that no level of regulation can ultimately overcome the basic laws of supply and demand that dictate employers will always be under less pressure to increase wages the greater the supply of labour available to them.

Or they will drag out the ‘lump of labour fallacy’ argument, which, while correctly recognising that there is not a fixed number of jobs in the economy, goes on to assert that increases in the population through immigration lead to more demand and thus higher levels of growth and greater prosperity – a theory which, as well as being an argument for an ever-expanding population, has been shown to be deeply flawed by, among others, the Cambridge economist Bob Rowthorn.

Or they will just dispense with any attempt at coherent argument and brazenly misrepresent your position by accusing you of ‘blaming migrants’ or being ‘anti-immigration’.

There is a conspiracy of silence among labour movement leaders on the real impact of unrestricted immigration in working-class communities. It is their own version of ‘Don’t mention the war’, a symptom of the group-think that infects today’s Left from top to bottom. Most leaders and activists, comfortable in their own collective prejudices and with no experience of thinking critically or independently, are unable to comprehend that there might just be a credible alternative point of view on this issue – one that isn’t rooted in ‘dog whistle’ politics or ‘xenophobia’, but is perfectly commensurate with the traditions of democratic socialism and trade unionism.

No, opponents must instead be smeared and denounced.

They ought to take a long hard look at themselves. Because, in the end, their support for open borders, far from bringing about the unity of the international working-class and breaking down social and cultural barriers, has served instead to entrench a system that commodifies humanity, atomises communities and allows big business to cut wages in the quest for greater profits. How could any representative of working people be proud of that outcome?

Paul Embery is a firefighter, trade union activist, pro-Brexit campaigner and ‘Blue Labour’ thinker


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