Monday, 12 March 2018

Choosing the wrong target

After Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at his party’s Scottish Branch meeting over the weekend, it is a complete mystery to me how anyone is still giving any credibility to the idea that Labour’s policy on the EU is in any way different in substance to that of the Tory government.  As an exercise in cakeism, it was a tour de force: Labour want all the benefits of the EU without being bound by any of the rules; they want to be outside the EU yet still have a say in all the important EU policies; they want the exact same benefits as we get from membership whilst having more freedom to make our own policies than any member, let alone any of the countries with which the EU has an existing relationship.  Other than the use of words, and the fig leaf of ‘a’ rather than ‘the’ customs union, it was a speech which could have come from the mouth of Johnson, Gove, Fox, or May.
Except, that is, for the part about immigration.  That was more Farage than Johnson and friends.  And it was a particularly depressing section of his speech, designed more to try to appeal to the prejudices of a particular segment of the electorate than to set out any sort of vision for the future.  There’s been plenty of research showing that the impact of immigration on wages and opportunities is minimal, but he chose to ignore that, concentrating instead on the idea that the damaging part of immigration, in economic terms, is when agencies bring in foreign labour to undercut workers in the UK.
Now, on a factual basis, I don’t know what proportion of total immigration this issue affects.  It’s certainly not all immigration, and I suspect that it’s actually a small part, but it’s a part which is more visible in some communities and some types of work than others, as a result of which it probably has more impact on people’s views on the issue than other types of immigration.  It would be interesting to see some more detailed research on it, but I’ll accept that there is a widespread perception that some agencies are getting around UK law on issues such as the minimum wage by providing food, accommodation, transport etc. and docking these costs (at an inflated level) from the wages being paid to the migrants concerned.  As I said, the extent to which this is a true or accurate perception is a question on which I do not have adequate information to make a judgement, but I’m certain that the perception is widely held.
If we suppose, for the sake of argument, that it is an accurate perception, and that the practice is in use widely across the UK, then it is reasonable to ask what the solution might be.  And my immediate reaction is that if there are holes in the law allowing unscrupulous capitalist employers to exploit employees, than those holes need to be plugged and enforcement action taken.  And had Corbyn suggested that, I would have whole-heartedly supported him.  Protecting workers from exploitation by unscrupulous employers is exactly the approach that I would have expected from anyone calling himself or herself a socialist.
Sadly, however, that wasn’t what he did.  To his shame, he effectively scapegoated the migrants themselves, by supporting an end to freedom of movement.  It’s a case of blaming the victims of an economic relationship based on power and wealth for being on the wrong side of that relationship.  His underlying point, I assume, is that freedom of movement for lower paid workers is a policy which is working more in the interests of employers than of employees.  But even if he’s right, the answer isn’t to curtail the freedom of workers to move, it is to curtail the freedom of employers to exploit.

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