Labour leader joins the immigration debate
One of the reasons Labour lost the 2010 general election to the Conservatives, some pundits hold, is that it was out of step with the general mood on immigration. In particular, they cite former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s outburst on the campaign trail after a woman complained of East European migrants in her town. ‘Bigoted woman’ is how he described her in what he mistakenly thought was a moment of private fuming.
Instead, what he could have told her is: ‘Be that as it may, madam, there’s nothing we could have done about East Europeans.’ Now, Brown’s successor Ed Miliband, in an apparent move to reoccupy the centre-left ground, says Labour got it wrong over East European immigrants, and that in the future Britain should impose controls.
I don’t necessarily agree with the view that immigration was what lost it for Labour. Nevertheless, numbers have become controversial.
Large numbers of East Europeans began arriving in Britain after 2004, when the European Union was expanded – enlarged is the official description – with the addition of eight new members from East Europe and the Balkans: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. And there were two from the Mediterranean – Cyprus and Malta.
In 2007, Bulgaria and Romania were added to the list of EU members. But it’s the eight in the first batch of enlargement – the so-called Accession eight or A8 countries – that most concern Britons. Within this group, it is the industrious and entrepreneurial Polish immigrants who are in the eye of this storm, having taken many jobs up and down the country.
The common complaint is that the Poles have taken low-skilled jobs that should have gone to native Brits who were priced out as Poles are quite happy to work for unacceptably low wages. But Poles argue they take jobs that Britons are unwilling to do. This is from a website for Polish migrants: “When Tesco wanted 140 new lorry drivers it took to hiring Poles because of the shortage of British applicants. Also, Aberdeen City Council hired from Eastern Europe because of the shortage of bricklayers, plumbers, joiners and electricians amongst the indigenous population. Fruit pickers in the country have also recruited largely from Eastern Europe, again because of the shortage of British workers wanting to do the work.”
According to some estimates, around one million Poles have migrated to Britain since the A8 joined the EU in 2004 but around half of them have reportedly left, following the recession. If the numbers are true, it’s a legitimate cause for concern in terms of social cohesion and provision of services at a time when the government is trying to cut public expenditure with possibly far-reach implications for the future of Britain’s generous welfare state.
Ed Miliband’s idea, following months of consultation with thinktanks, is to tackle the demand-end of the migration market. He wants the government to strengthen the law so that employment agencies cannot favour foreign workers. He said, “In sectors where there is a problem, every medium and large employer that has more than 25% foreign workers – double the average share of migrants in the population – should have to notify Jobcentre Plus (that is, advertise locally first).”
A Labour government would focus on three things to help ease pressure on public services and wages: better enforcement of the minimum wage with the help of trade unions; cracking down on recruitment agencies who only supplied workers from particular countries; and looking at areas and types of jobs where there were large numbers of foreign workers.
In the future, it will also enforce transitional controls on immigration from any country joining the European Union. Croatia is expected to become the 28th member on 1 July 2013 and waiting in the wings are Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. Albania, among the poorest in the Balkans, applied for membership on April 2009 but has not yet been recognised as an official candidate.
Waking up late, the British government has imposed transitional controls for Bulgaria and Romania. Immigrants from these countries will have to get the clearance from Border control officers if they want to work in Britain. “Permission to work will normally be given only where the worker has a specific job offer and the work is in skilled employment for which the employer has been unable to find a suitably qualified resident worker,” says the home ministry. “There are also quota-based arrangements for lower skilled jobs in the agricultural and food processing sectors which will stay at the same level for 2012 and 2013.”
The response to Miliband’s foray into the sticky immigration debate has generally been along the lines of too little too late, the common argument being that social housing and enforcement of minimum wages are things Labour should have been campaigning for any way, so the issue (according to this particular view) isn’t really immigration. Rather, it is about planning for immigration and ensuring enough resources.