Ed Miliband says he wants to halt the “race to the bottom” in wages, jobs and employment rights. Fine sentiments, except that when it comes down to policies, Labour is in its very own race to the bottom over immigration.
On Friday, Nigel Farage, the leader of the nationalist-populist Ukip, blamed migrant workers from Eastern Europe for many of Britain’s woes. He ludicrously claimed that “Romanian crime gangs” were at the centre of a London crime wave. Farage demanded action to prevent the free movement of Romanian workers into Britain from January 1 under European Union rules.
Less than 48 hours later, Miliband and his immigrant spokesperson Chris Bryant were at it. Trailed in the media as a policy that offered “a Brit job for each foreign worker hired”, Miliband was quoted as saying: “Any firm that wants to bring in a foreign worker from outside the EU will also have to train up someone who is a local worker."
In a rambling interview with Andrew Marr, the Labour leader added: "I do want to get low skill immigration down and therefore overall immigration down, yes. In our first year in office we will legislate for an immigration bill which has secure control of our borders, cracks down on exploitation of workers coming here undercutting workers already here.” For good measure, Bryant in an article for the Huffington Post, warned about the dangers of a “growing reliance on overseas workers”.
All this is pandering to the most reactionary point of view, that workers’ wages have been driven down by cheap labour from other countries. This is nationalism pure and simple, looking for a scapegoat when the causes are to be found in the economic system itself.
Miliband – first generation British, by the way from a family that fled Nazi persecution – implies that if low skilled workers are blocked off, wages would rise in proportion. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. How, for example, does Labour explain that in earlier periods of mass immigration to Britain, in the 1950s and 60s, wages did not fall and unemployment was relatively low?
The movement of workers is an expression of the globalisation of the capitalist economy that has happened largely at the expense of wages, conditions and jobs in every country, including the United States. Here, average weekly earnings are still 14% below their peak achieved in 1972, having fallen 40 years in a row.
In Britain, as the power of globalised capital to dictate to governments and trade unions grew, so the share of wealth going to workers actually fell. The wage share of annual national income (GDP) reached a high of 64.5% in 1975, falling to a record post-war low of 51.7% in 1996 and was 53.2% in 2008 – close to where it was more than a decade before
As the 2009 TUC report Unfair to Middling explained: “The declining wage share has been driven by the introduction of flexible labour markets since the 1980s (with the paring back of employment protection rules); economic liberalisation (including privatisation); the increasing constraints on collective bargaining; a reduction in the demand for unskilled labour resulting from technical change; and the global transfer of jobs triggered by globalisation.”
And in another report, The Great Wages Grab, the TUC found that by 2010 the average full time person in work would be paid £7,000 more than they actually were if wages had kept up with economic growth and “if the best paid had not increased their wages at the expense of everyone else”.
And this was after 13 years of New Labour governments!
Miliband’s shameful race to the bottom over race and immigration is already suffering internal contradictions. The original policy of getting employers to offer an apprenticeship to a local person for every “foreign worker” hired has fallen foul of the requirement to make jobs available to workers from all European Union member states.
With living standards for most falling away rapidly – a situation certain to worsen when fuel and transport costs rise sharply in the next few months – Miliband and Labour are looking for anyone but capitalism to blame. One Nation Labour is as reactionary as its new name would suggest.