Vince Cable (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Why liberal approaches to migration won’t work
While he was a member of the coalition government, Vince Cable was one of the main proponents of a liberal immigration policy, in particular arguing for greater openness to Indian migration as a necessary and even beneficial component of an EU-India trade deal. So his apparent conversion to opposing EU free movement has hit the headlines. In practice, I don’t think his approach has fundamentally changed, but it was wrong when he was in government and it’s wrong now, too.
Vince has always been on the social democratic wing of the Liberal Democrats, and we had reason to be grateful for that as he acted as possibly the most effective drag anchor on the Conservative instincts of the coalition government. His argument for staying in the EU customs union, and for stressing the need for the government’s Brexit agenda to focus on the employment and economic impacts, is motivated by objectives we share. But Vince is a genuine economic and social liberal, in the classical political definition of the terms, and that’s at the root of the problems with his views on immigration.
His latest foray into the field, in the New Statesman, lists a number of concerns that a liberal immigration system does indeed find challenging, because there aren’t individual or individualist solutions. These concerns are – fundamentally – not about what individuals feel or think or do, but about how the system works. And the solutions to the problems Vince identifies require collective approaches. Here are three of them.
First, he writes that:
“British opposition to immigration is mainly colour-blind. Until well into the 1990s ‘immigration’ was code word for race.”
The perception that concerns about East European migration are somehow different from concerns about black and Asian migration is ahistorical. Tell it to the Huguenots, the Jews, or – until very recently indeed – the Irish. And many of the concerns about new arrivals from southern and eastern Europe – about the exploitation that leads to undercutting and competition for low-paid work has even applied to the people a previously commonly male workforce shared their homes with – their wives and daughters.
The response to the entry into the labour force (or re-entry, but for once in peacetime) of women that occurred in the 60s and 70s, was not so much hostility to women’s employment, or restrictions that have kept women’s participation rates much lower even in other countries of Europe (although there have been periodic attempts to blame women for men’s employment and even academic problems.) Instead, we had equal pay legislation, the expansion of childcare, and sex discrimination laws more generally, as well as the growth of the women’s movement inside trade unions: women’s committees and conferences, equality officers and reserved places on executives, often designed precisely to make sure that collective bargaining addressed women’s as well as men’s concerns.
Second he writes that:
“One uncomfortable feature of the referendum was the large Brexit vote among British Asians, many of whom resented the contrast between the restrictions they face and the welcome mat laid out for Poles and Romanians.”
But it’s common for the main opposition to the newest wave of immigration to be strongest among precisely the previous group of immigrants, who are most likely to be competing with them for the lowest-paid jobs, services and housing in the poorest areas. Anyone familiar with the East End of London will know how hostility to Jews in the first half of the 20th century (ironically, mostly from eastern Europe themselves) gave way to concerns about the Bangladeshi and Pakistani arrivals of the second half of the century, and has now given way to concern about Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians.
What’s different about the East End of London is that those pressures, those concerns, were addressed by campaigners who drew attention to what the local people and new arrivals had in common rather than what separated them. We’ve just celebrated the 80th anniversary of the Cable Street resistance to Mosley’s fascists which united the different working class communities of the area. Similar attempts to stir up anti-Asian racism in the 80s and 90s failed too, and the rout of the BNP in Barking, where many of the original East Enders have moved, showed the possibilities of community cohesion.
And thirdly, he writes that
“People moving from high unemployment, low productivity countries to areas of labour scarcity and higher productivity produce economic gains. But the benefits accrue mainly to migrants themselves (and business owners)”
And he adds that – this is worth quoting at length –
“There are also distributional effects. Critics complain that immigrant workers depress wages and reduce job opportunities for natives. Undoubtedly, this happens in some occupations, like building and taxi driving. But there are other areas where immigrants are not competing and bring complementary skills, creating jobs. When I was secretary of state I commissioned studies to evaluate this. The conclusions were sufficiently reassuring that the Home Office blocked my department’s wish to publish them. Losers, however, there undoubtedly are.”
This is the core of the trade union movement’s approach to migration and free movement, and it is an agenda that is shared across the European Union through the European Trade Union Confederation. The answer to the distributional challenges raised by migration is redistribution, effected through stronger collective bargaining to prevent exploitation and undercutting (sectoral collective bargaining in industries like construction and taxi driving, for instance, where it is often individualist bogus self-employment that has underpinned the problem); propped up by laws that prohibit exploitation and require equal pay for people doing the same jobs in the same workplaces; and supplemented by measures such as the Migration Impact Fund which we called for before the last Autumn Financial Statement.
But all of the solutions that I have advanced above to the problems Vince has raised are collective responses, not individual ones, and that is the heart of the problem with liberal approaches to immigration. Just like the response of politicians who want to close the border, people who want to throw the borders open are not solving the problems migrants or the existing population face, and both risk stirring up division, tension and violence by posing one group’s interests against another’s.
Individual migrants are not to blame for their own exploitation, and individuals who express concerns about that migration are not racists. In demanding better wages and more skilled jobs, more council housing that they can afford and an end to cuts to public services, they have more in common than divides them.