The left’s elephant in the room

Samuel Heath

Political Science and Government Student, Dartmouth College


Immigration; there are few topics in British politics as likely to generate as much discussion and controversy. It is approached, perhaps, only by education and the NHS. Yet discussion about immigration has often been conceptualised as an ideological face-off between a vaguely defined “left”, consisting of those in favour of largely uncontrolled immigration, or who justify it on the grounds of the contribution made by immigrants directly to public services or to the economy as a whole, and an equally vaguely defined “right”, consisting of those of the opposite opinion.

This simplistic, immigration-based division of the political spectrum has probably gained some of its credibility from the pro-immigration positions of the prominent left-wing parties in British politics in recent years. It was under the Labour government of Tony Blair that the UK opened up its labour market to nationals of the eight Eastern European countries – including Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary – and offered them basic benefits such as Housing Benefit and Jobseeker’s Allowance immediately upon their accession to the European Union (EU). It was under Labour that the UK approved the entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the EU only three years later. And it was incumbent Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown who, just prior to the 2010 general election, famously described Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy as a ‘bigoted woman’ for expressing her concerns about the scale of the influx from eastern Europe.

Even more recently, many key senior leaders in the party have been seen to be equivocal at best on the issue of immigration. Former leader Ed Miliband promised extraordinarily little (given the public mood) in Labour’s 2015 manifesto: to count the numbers entering and leaving the UK; to stop recruitment agencies hiring exclusively from overseas; to double the residence period required to access benefits; and to enforce ‘minimum standards of English’ among public-facing public sector workers. Jeremy Corbyn has preferred to side-step the issue of immigration by accepting European free movement as a condition of single market membership and instead offering extra public funding to areas where services are put under strain by high levels of immigration (the Migrant Impact Fund).

It is somewhat confusing, however, quite why the immigration spectrum (for want of a better phrase) has been mapped onto the traditional left-right spectrum in the way that it has in the public and media perception. Indeed, there appear to be compelling reasons for which those on the traditional left – by which term I loosely refer to those who wish to use the power of the state to improve the economic and social conditions of the working class – to oppose mass, uncontrolled immigration – in other words, to align themselves with the policies of what is often called the “right”, notably UKIP.

There is, according to the think tank Migration Watch UK, consistent evidence that immigration has had a small negative effect on wages at the lower end of the UK labour market. A study of 2008, for example, found that, when the impact of immigration on wages is broken down by occupation and by region, wages in the semi-skilled and unskilled services sector have suffered the greatest decline: ‘a 10% rise in the proportion of immigrants [was] associated with a 5% reduction in pay.’ A similar approach was taken by staff at the Bank of England seven years later, giving a similar result:

‘statistically negative effects of immigration on wages are concentrated among skilled production workers, and semi/unskilled service workers. In the latter cases, the coefficients indicates [sic] that a 10 percentage point rise in the proportion of immigrants working in semi/unskilled services – that is, in care homes, bars, shops, restaurants, cleaning, for example – leads to a 1.88 percent reduction in pay.’

This reduction was not, the researchers specify, a simple reflexion of the increasing number of immigrants, who are generally paid less, on average, than native workers, in the workforce (the so-called compositional effect). Even taking into account the wage differential between immigrants and natives within occupations, the conclusion obtains. ‘It is striking,’ the researchers write, ‘that the compositional effect is small when compared to the large impact of 1.88 percent reported above… The vast majority of this effect refers to the impact on native workers.’ In other words, British workers in the semi/unskilled services sector – nearly 6 million people, or a quarter of the total native workforce – have seen significant reductions in their wages because of a large influx of immigrants.

Such a conclusion should hardly come as a surprise. Take Romania, for example. In 2014, when Romanian workers were granted access to the UK labour market, the average monthly salary in that country was a mere €398, compared to €2,597 in the UK. Romania’s monthly minimum wage in 2014 was €202, compared to €1,226 in the UK. Based on these figures, a minimum-wage earning Romanian could increase his income by a factor of 6 simply by entering the British labour market. We should expect, therefore, Romanian immigrants to the UK to be far more willing to take minimum-wage jobs than native workers, and, more generally, to work for the minimum wage in occupations in which, under normal circumstances, employers would be compelled to offer higher wages in order to attract native workers. Faced with such a situation, British workers must either agree to work for the minimum wage, in order to remain competitive, or risk becoming unemployed. Such is the theoretical mechanism behind wage suppression.

Yet the issue is not just one of wages. Large influxes of immigrants have had other significant negative impacts, both economic and social, on the British working class. A 2008 House of Lords committee found that ‘immigration had hit training and apprenticeships offered to British workers’ – in other words, employers have been avoiding the social responsibility of providing young Britons with the skills they need to prosper in the labour market by taking advantage of the entry into said labour market of ready-trained workers from overseas. As a result, working-class Britons find themselves in the impossible position of being uncompetitive for want of skills and experience yet unable to obtain training in those skills from employers addicted to the flow of immigration.

Other immigration-induced problems that primarily affect the working class include pressure on housing and on the numbers of pupils in state schools. As regards the former, the picture painted by the evidence is nuanced because, as Oxford University’s Migration Observatory points out, although house prices do fall in areas with high levels of immigration – often because those areas become less desirable places to live, prompting the emigration of wealthier native residents – they rise in other areas because of this displacement and the increase in demand this causes. This was the conclusion arrived at by the government’s Migration Advisory Committee after it studied the issue in 2014. A report by a House of Lords committee claimed in 2008 that ‘if [2008 levels of] net immigration of 190,000 people per year continued over the next 20 years, it would contribute to a 10% increase in house prices.’

As for the latter, official figures have indicated that the number of pupils in British schools will rise (due to immigration and a concomitant elevated birth rate) by a million by 2022 to reach their highest level in four decades. This will be problematic not just because of the greater difficulty of finding a school place near to one’s place of residence, but also because of the larger class sizes and higher numbers of non-English-speaking pupils this situation will produce.

Some, perhaps all, of the above immigration-induced phenomena may be benefit, or be of negligible negative consequence, to certain socio-economically defined interest groups in British society. An increased supply of ready-trained workers willing to work longer hours for less money may, for example, be beneficial to employers who manage to exploit it. Rising house prices may be beneficial to those who already own a property or, indeed, multiple properties. But they are not, or at least should not be, so warmly welcomed by those who claim to represent the interest of Britain’s working class. The left of politics, however, has seemed far too content to lean on purely reactionary measures (almost invariably involving higher public expenditure), Labour’s Migrant Impact Fund being a case in point. It is bizarre that those on the left should seek to apply the power of the state in such a mitigatory and superficial fashion, while leaving the root of the problems, uncontrolled immigration, uncontested.

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