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Home Opinion The left has to get politically tough on labour migration
Free Movement • EU • Red Lines

The left has to get politically tough on labour migration

John McTernan - 26 September 2013

It’s time for the political left to draw some red lines on immigration and the freedom of movement of Labour within the EU

It’s time to get tough on immigration. Really tough. It’s time for the left to sit up and pay attention. Let’s cut the crap and get to the heart of the problem. Here’s my three point plan. A complete ban. Total honesty. And, as a result, popularity.

First, we need an immediate ban. A moratorium on any politician who prays on low-skilled, working class votes in aid of their racist solutions. In the aftermath of the 2010 UK General Election I got sick and tired of listening to Labour MPs saying we should listen to our voters, and then trotting out unadulterated xenophobic tripe. Now I don’t want to go all Burke on you, but seriously, who would listen to their voters? Particularly the lumpen mass with their half-formed thoughts and fully-formed prejudices. It’s the worst combination of tourism and ouvrierisme to parrot in an undigested fashion something a worker has told you – and then hold it to be true. Politics is about leadership. And leadership is about giving ordinary people a larger frame within which to understand issues.

One of the catastrophic failures of the left in recent decades has been the abandonment of any ideological project. In the past, when a constituent came to an MP with a problem they would work on it, but would also instruct the voter. At times, it might have been parodic – ‘Comrade, of course I’ll try to help, but remember housing problems will only be completely resolved under socialism’ – but it was a downward transmission of ideology. Now what we seem to suffer from is an upward transmission, and amplification, of grievance.

Second, some honesty. Is it really a problem that low-skilled workers from one part of the European Union understand and exploit the concept of arbitrage? Wages a Dutch or British national would not accept are acceptable to the new Europeans. Sure, the wages and conditions have to be legal, but it is not a crisis if entry level jobs are taken by citizens from another EU country.  On the one hand, the living standards of the UK and the Netherlands are raised. A combination of agricultural productivity and supermarket competition has substantially reduced the real cost of food over the last two decades. That is a fundamental and irreversible transfer of wealth to working people and their families. On the other, these low wages raise the living standard of the new EU members. Along with globalisation, remittances are the single largest factor in lifting countries, families and individuals out of poverty. Filling minimum wage jobs with migrant workers is progressive. Full stop.

We have had enough experience since workers from accession countries were able to work in the UK to realise that these are generations of migrants who have no intention of staying in Britain. Some because they are using their remittances to buy a building or a business back home. Others because they – and who can blame them – cannot understand a country where workers are state subsidised by the dole but allowed to turn their noses up at jobs they think are below them.

Third, popularity. It used to hardly need saying, but apparently now it needs broadcasting – ethnic voters vote Labour. Let me repeat that. These new workers will vote out of preference for a centre-left party. Why, when the left is electorally in retreat across Europe, would we think it made sense to ban potentially loyal voters from even entering our country? Madness. It won’t work. Free movement within Europe is a fundamental right. If it were to be tried it would fail, except in one regard – migrant workers would know which party tried to rob them and their families of prosperity. And what do you suppose the electoral consequences would be? Far from benign, I would say. But let us go to the level of theory. What kind of centre-left party would support free movement of capital across the EU but ban free movement of labour? That’s right – a morally, intellectually and ideologically barren one.

The crisis in Europe is real. It is a crisis of growth, of jobs, of governance and of politics. We used to be proud to say that an injury to one is an injury to all. Do we now have limits on our solidarity? We used to argue that a crisis caused by the boss class should not be resolved on the backs of the workers. Have we abandoned that too? For God’s sake, we’re socialists. Surely that rules out policies that are anti-worker?

John McTernan is a commentator and political strategist who works internationally. He was political secretary to UK prime minister Tony Blair and, most recently, head of communications to Australian prime minister Julia Gillard

This is a contribution to the Policy Network series Orange Alert and Red Lines: The Freedom of Movement of Labour in Europe.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: John McTernan , Opinion , Immigration , Xenophobia , racism , populism , extremism , mainstream , welfare , social welfare , citizenship , Democracy , Election , Vote , Voting , Economy , Centre-left , Centre-right , Left , Right , Far left , Far right , Trust , Political Trust , Morality , Financial Crisis , Economic Crisis , Banking Crisis , Debt Crisis , Sovereign Debt Crisis , Sovereign Debt , Financial , Economic , Banking , Crisis , Austerity , Europe , EU , European Union ,

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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