Eastern European immigration, low wages and an epic political car-crash

Today’s media have been dominated by a speech by Chris Bryant MP, due to be delivered later today, on immigration and low pay.  Bryant was apparently due to accuse two major UK retailers – Tesco and Next – of using cheap Eastern European labour to undercut wages for local workers.  Both companies, as might be expected, deny the accusation strenuously; not least because if the allegations are true those companies would be breaking the law.  Bryant’s emphasis on the need to deal with low pay has thus been obscured by what has been turned into a nasty row on that old, discredited theme of “British jobs for British workers” – that most tired and discredited of dog-whistles.

Bryant’s appearances on the media this morning have done nothing to reassure anyone that there is any kind of coherent thinking going on, and to assuage the accusations – ironically enough originating from the people that Bryant was apparently due to criticise in his speech – of dog-whistle politics.  In many ways the most damaging aspect of this is less the dog-whistle than the sheer crass amateurishness: a speech that has not yet been delivered, which appears to rest on questionable research, and which the politician about to make it appears incapable of defending without lapsing into the very language his critics are accusing him of.  Where is Malcolm Tucker when you need him?

But it’s worth unpacking what appear to be the very mixed messages here.  At one level, Bryant is trying – and quite manifestly failing – to come to terms with what is one of the defining characteristics of economic and social life in the UK: the catastrophic fall in real wages, which is itself part of a wider phenomenon including casualisation, zero-hours contracts and underemployment – namely, the huge shift away from wages to rents as a proportion of the national economy.  It is a phenomenon that has been happening for many years, but since 2010 the drift has turned into a rout.  The UK, recent figures show, has some of the fastest-falling real wages in Europe – faster, for example, than Spain, and with only Portugal, Greece and the Netherlands faring worse.

At another level, Bryant is – deliberately or not – leading us back towards the idea that immigration takes away British jobs; his comments on Radio 4’s today programme failed significantly to avoid that impression.

To turn to immigration as an explanation is an obvious but deeply ignorant response, and one that simply does not stand up to scrutiny.  All of the serious evidence shows that migration simply does not take away “British” jobs; and there are credible arguments that the opposite is the case.  Here, for example, is a literature  by the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance showing that there is no real evidence that migration reduces pay or takes jobs from British workers, and that immigrants are net contributors to the exchequer – a point emphasised in this piece by Jonathan Portes in the Guardian.  In other words, the facts behind the debate brewing around Bryant’s remarks are simple: the decline in real wages in the UK economy has nothing – absolutely nothing – to do with immigration (or, if you prefer, the exploitation of foreign labour as such).  The answers to the questions of low and falling pay lie elsewhere, in regions that are considerably further from the comfort zone of mainstream political debate.

The point about progressive politics is that it is often counter-intuitive; to succeed it needs to challenge myths, not endorse them.  It needs to be empirically grounded, and articulated with rigour and clarity.  Bryant’s speech-that-hasn’t-been-delivered-yet – and certainly his performance on the airwaves this morning – suggest an official Party spokesman who lacks even a fingerhold of intellectual grip on the issues he’s supposed to be dealing with, and that’s bad politics by any standards.  And in this case Bryant has simply succeeded in playing into the hands of people whose take on the debate on immigration and nationality is considerably more toxic than his own intellectual muddle.

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