From the TUC

Bright Blue on migration: bright enough, but in the end, too blue

18 Feb 2015, by in Politics

Soft left Conservative think tank Bright Blue has hit the headlines with a new report on what the centre right should be saying about migration this week. In what was mostly newsworthy as an attack from within on the ridiculous Government policy of capping net migration, there are some good ideas, but also some that demonstrate why the union approach is likely to be different. In particular, a migration policy whose objective is to boost support for the Conservative Party among ethnic minority voters is unlikely to be in the interests of working people.

It’s worth noting that Bright Blue has a deserved reputation as the sensible, socially liberal wing of the Conservative Party. They’ve even supported the Robin Hood Tax. And there’s more than a whiff of distaste for the Conservative Party’s self-defeating lurch after UKIP on immigration in A balanced centre-right agenda on immigration. The authors are probably chasing the votes not of those making a choice between UKIP and the Conservatives, but those whose support for the Conservatives is being undermined by the pandering to UKIP’s agenda.

That probably explains why the groups Bright Blue are interested in persuading are more concerned about the cultural aspects of migration than the economic impact: the TUC’s opinion polling suggests that, overall, working people are concerned about issues like undercutting wages, benefits and access to public services. It also explains why, in a rather telling comment, the authors eschew too much concentration on how skills-based migration policies can give the impression that:

“public policy is simply serving a narrow set of business interests. … if the centre-right is to trumpet the benefits of immigration, it is important that it doesn’t focus too heavily on the benefits to big business in particular.”

There are good ideas in the pamphlet, as well as the welcome rejection of the migration cap that the TUC always said was bad policy (although it was in reality designed to be good politics instead – a way of signalling sympathy with those tempted to vote UKIP over migration.) We would welcome more free English classes, extra resources for public services to respond to local changes in migration numbers, and a greater emphasis on encouraging integration. Indeed, although we’re not mentioned, unions have always been a key vehicle for integration, especially at the workplace where we have a clear interest in uniting workers rather than dividing them along racial or any other lines.

But when it comes to economic issues, the report comes over rather coy on solutions. We would agree that tackling housing availability is necessary, but the means are just as important. We favour a big programme of council house building, which would address the growing shortage of social housing that has helped fuel mistaken concerns that migrants get special treatment. 

There is a sensible emphasis on the economic benefits brought by migrants who work hard and pay their taxes, and a welcome argument that a more contributory benefits system would be popular as well as help to reduce concerns about migration. But concentrating as the pamphlet does on picking winners by using migrants to fill skill shortages or boost a flagging entrepreneurial spirit ignores the need to address the concerns about falling wages that the authors do, fleetingly, acknowledge.

Our research shows that those economic concerns are best addressed not, as some would suggest, by reducing migration numbers or even sending migrants back to their countries of origin, but by cracking down on exploitative employment. That means enforcing the minimum wage, tackling zero hours contracts, closing the temporary agency worker loopholes and increasing the coverage of collective bargaining so that unions and employers can raise wages for all workers rather than just support a decent safety net.

Those prescriptions would be popular and effective. But they seem to be no more on Bright Blue’s agenda than on the anti-migrant right. At the end of the day, it’s fundamentally about class rather than race.