Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Labour's U-Turn on Migration from CEE

When the British PM David Cameron uses anti-immigrant rhetoric it's no surprise. After all we expect the Tories to be.. well Tories. However, recently there have been worrying signs that some within the British Labour Party are jumping on the anti-migrant bandwagon in an attempt to boost its popularity. Furthermore, migrants from Central-Eastern Europe (CEE), and particularly Poland, are beginning to feel the brunt of this rising anti-migrant sentiment.

Speaking about the previous Labour government's record on immigration , in a recent interview on the BBC, the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, said:

"I don't think we lied but I do think we got it wrong in a number of respects. I think that first of all we clearly underestimated the number of people coming in from Poland and that had more of an effect therefore than we would otherwise have thought. And secondly, I think there's this really important issue about people coming into the country and the pressures on people's wages. People aren't prejudiced but people say to me look I'm worried about the pressure on my wages of people coming into this country, I'm worried about what it does to housing supply - all those issues. Now some of that is real and some of it isn't but I think you have to address not just tough immigration policy but underlying issues as well."

This came on the back of previous statements made by Miliband about the pressure that immigrants have had on wages and living-standards in the UK. It also follows comments made by the influential Labour intellectual Maurice Glasman. The issue of immigration is a central theme of Glasman's concept of 'Blue Labour' - that attempts to marry Labourism with social conservatism. Glasman claims that immigration to Britain has helped to hold down salaries - particularly for lower earners - and acted as an 'unofficial wages policy' in the UK. He states that the government was underhanded about its migration policy and that they lied about the number of immigrants that would come into the country.

These are part of a trend within sections the British Labour movement of pandering to the anti-immigration policies of the Conservative Party and the far-right. This manifested itself in the run-up to the last General Election, when there were unofficial strikes called under the slogan of 'British Jobs for British Workers'. A phrase coined by Gordon Brown.

For years politicians on the right have argued that there needs to be an honest debate about immigration into Britain. The only honest debate they seem to want to have however is one that starts and ends with the idea that there are too many immigrants in Britain which is bad for its economy. An excellent article by Mehdi Hassan shows the hypocrisy of this debate and how it leaves out any discussion about the great contribution that migrants have made to British economic, social and cultural life. Hassan also points out how studies into the impact of immigration have shown how it actually boosts economic growth and wages (including low wages). Rather than trying to dress up the anti-immigrant policies of the right into a programme for itself, the left should be challenging the very assumptions and facts upon which these are based.

However, there is another side to the story of migration - which is that of emigration. Miliband and Glasman have argued that the Labour Party lied or underestimated the extent of the amount of immigrants coming from Poland and Eastern Europe. They also insinuate that the problem was caused by Britain's '0pen-door' policy to immigrants that allowed for this large inflow of migrants from countries such as Poland.

It is true that the amount of immigrants coming from Poland was underestimated prior to EU enlargement. This was the first time that the EU labour market had been opened up to workers from CEE; and therefore there was no real basis for estimating how many would come. However, this is not the crux of the matter. The real issue at hand is that 10 new countries had entered the EU and therefore should have right to move, live and work around the EU as they wish. This is one of the principles upon which the EU is founded and is one that any progressive should defend and support. After all, if Poles are to have restricted access to the UK labour market then by the same standards so should the Brits in say Spain or Portugal - or for that matter those of us living in Poland itself.

The Labour Party government should in fact be praised (its not often I say this) for its policy towards CEE immigration after EU enlargement. The scandal of this time was that it was only Britain and Ireland which initially allowed people from the new eastern EU states to work freely in their countries. All other 'old' EU states took up the option to maintain restrictions on the right of CEE migrants to work in their countries. This meant that the possible destination for labour migrants from CEE was limited. Seven years after EU expansion, it will only be next month that the German and Austrian labour markets are finally opened up to workers from CEE.

The other issue, that is little considered in the debate on CEE migration in the UK, is the huge profits made by Western European companies after the opening up of the CEE markets and economies. By the time that countries such as Poland had entered the EU, their economies had been liberalised and opened up to trade with the West. Many sectors of the CEE economies have become dominated by Western European capital. For example, over 85% of the banking sector in CEE is now in the hands of foreign banks. If goods and capital are allowed to move freely and Western companies have access to the CEE markets then people equally have the right to move as well. The fact that the economic policies being urged by the West and the EU had contributed to the creation of soaring unemployment in CEE (unemployment had reached 20% in Poland when it entered the EU) was a contributing factor to the large outflow of labour from 2004. Do the proponents of restricting immigration from CEE also believe that the Polish government should restrict British business in Poland?

In an age of austerity and economic hardship, the issue of immigration has become a useful distraction for governments in Europe. This has invariably been connected to racism and Islamophobia - which are on a rise throughout the continent. Similarly, a danger exists that migrants from CEE will be targeted as a scapegoat for the anti-immigrant right. It is imperative that the left does not allow itself to be lured by these divisive and regressive policies.

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