Monday, 18 July 2011

Anti-immigrant protectionism is not the answer

Until now, it probably didn't matter a whole lot what Maurice Glasman had to say about anything. I quite happily allowed the chatter about Blue Labour to pass me by. Indeed, I probably thought there was something in the attempts to revive things like credit unions at a time of banking crises. His community projects offered a useful counterpoint to David Cameron's Big Society. But Ed Miliband was not in any position to challenge Cameron, and few cared what his 'gurus' had to say about policy. Not any more. Miliband's deft handling of the ever-widening hacking scandal has given him a new prominence, and the utterances of this guru start to matter.

As someone who has played my part in taming, if not slaying, a few sacred cows, I suppose I shouldn't really object if this 'guru' wants to start a bovine bloodbath. But when what he proposes is a troubling combination of protectionism and a view of immigration that would be seen as daringly brave in the Monday Club, it is surely time to question Miliband's wisdom in listening too closely to his views.

To be fair, there is always a bit of Maurice Glasman that is worth listening to: his wish to revive crafts and community has much merit. But it is his corollary of those ideas that can be worrying.

In an interview published in today's Daily Telegraph, apparently conducted for the Fabian Review, Glasman has plenty to say about previous Labour leaders, regarding Tony Blair, who won three general elections, as having a 'slightly demented' view of modernisation. He is, of course, entitled to his opinion. So I trust he will forgive me if I raise an eyebrow at his view of the role of migration in a modern economy, though I will leave any psychiatric analysis to professionals. Here's how Mary Riddell reported him:

[He would] renegotiate the rules on European workers and freeze inward migration for EU and non-EU citizens, except where employers or universities make a case for a specific, skilled individual. "We've got to reinterrogate our relationship with the EU on the movement of labour. The EU has gone from being a sort of pig farm subsidised bloc... to the free movement of labour and capital. It's legalistic, it's administrative, and it's no good. So I think we've got to renegotiate with the EU. His call is to restrict immigration to necessary entrants such as highly skilled leaders, especially in vocational skills. "We might, for example, bring in German masters, as we did in the 15th and 16th centuries to renew guilds."
But exemptions should be made on a case-by-case basis? "Yes. We should absolutely do that... Britain is not an outpost of the UN. We have to put the people in this country first." Even if that means stopping immigration completely for a period? "Yes. I would add that we should be more generous and friendly in receiving those [few] who are needed. To be more generous, we have to draw the line."

Let's just get this straight. We need to stop migration, regardless of the contribution migrants make to the economy. That means losing billions from university students who pay to study in the UK. It means forcing industry to employ only British workers, unless they are German meisters, though quite why they might wish to come here now with their own economy doing so well is not clear. It means that the economy should be allowed to take a nose-dive while we test the theory that those who are currently out of work are ready to take on the jobs that are currently filled by EU migrant labour, in turn surely increasing unemployment in the short term and making it impossible for British workers to work overseas. It means reducing our opportunities to export into international markets. Businesses facing real difficulties can go whistle if they need to recruit abroad to survive.

And, of course, it means leaving the European Union and defying our international asylum obligations to retreat into bucolic splendid isolation. Of course, the whole thing is not just isolationist, it is economically suspect, simply ignoring the realities of globalisation in favour of workerist nostalgia that would even have stretched crudulity in the 1950s Soviet Union. There was a reason that New Labour was an electoral success: it was in tune with the realities both of people's lives and of the world they lived in. David Cameron had to make similar adjustments with his party. The last thing Ed Miliband - and Labour - needs is an attempt to turn the party into an isolationist, anti-immigrant, protectionist force: that is hopefully not where the centre ground of British politics really lies. 


Unknown said...

Conor, Glasman at least puts forward a perspective on the movement of labour and capital that is an easy sell on doorsteps.

I've tried explaining to people I've canvassed our party's position on migration and the movement of jobs to lower-wage economies. It isn't easy. And "protectionism" as a bogey-man doesn't even sound all that scary - people don't expect the state to act in ways which expose them to further risks.

Glasman is suggesting the UK establish a regulatory process where there is none - he's not suggesting breaking off ties, but renegotiating them. As such this is a position that would find favour with core voters and also potential switchers from the Tories.

Anonymous said...

It's strange how the harshest internal critics of New Labour as a tyranny of the focus group and populism now argue that we have to appease anti-immigrant sentiment because its electorally popular.

They were wrong both times.