Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to the Scottish Labour Party conference last week has drawn a lot of criticism from the SNP and others, for appearing to attack and blame migrants for the UK’s economic woes. Corbyn’s defenders have naturally rejected these charges. Paul Mason has dismissed the criticisms of Corbyn to the ‘pro-SNP media’, whatever that is, while other Corbynistas have attributed them to the media in general, the Blairite right etc, etc
This furore was due to a single sentence – a phrase in fact – in Corbyn’s discussion of the May government’s Brexit policy. Corbyn’s criticism, as usual, revolved around the incoherence and incompetence of May’s negotiatiating strategy, rather than its substance. After trashing her record – not hard – he reiterated Labour’s own ‘jobs first’ Brexit as the only credible alternative.. He talked about possibly staying in ‘a’ customs union, hinted at possibly staying in the single market, or at least seeking an agreement that would secure its benefits and advantages. Corbyn then laid out various caveats that might prevent such an outcome, including the following:
We cannot be held back inside or outside the EU from taking the steps we need to develop and invest in cutting edge industries and local business stop the tide of privatisation and outsourcing, or from preventing employers being able to import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions in the name of free market orthodoxy.
To his critics, this was blatant populist dog whistling, which echoes the UKIP and Tory framing of ‘mass immigration’ as a cause of low wages and poor working conditions. To his defenders, Corbyn was criticizing employers rather than migrants themselves. These criticisms are too strong, which doesn’t mean that the defence holds up either.
Corbyn’s ‘undercutting’ argument was on one hand an expression of his Lexit-tinged ‘euroscepticism’, with its implicit suggestion that the EU’s commitment to free movement is merely an expression of its commitment to ‘free market othodoxy’. The use of ‘import’ is not a great word to describe the process by which people move from one country to another. It’s a dehumanising term which reduces any sense of choice or agency on the part of migrants themselves and makes them sound a lot like sheep or cattle. It also ignores persistent evidence that migration does not undercut local pay and conditions – at least not on the scale that Corbyn and so many others have implied.
This does not mean that such ‘undercutting’ doesn’t happen at all. But by mentioning it only in the context of a discussion about Brexit, and leaving it there, Corbyn leaves out a great deal, just as so many others have done before him from a very different perspective.
Firstly it suggests that the EU is complicit in this ‘undercutting’ – a variant on a UKIP theme. Corbyn has also made this argument before and used the same kind of language, for example last year, when he talked of the ‘wholesale importation of workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry.’ This was reckless and inflammatory language then, and it still is. Then, as now, Corbyn’s comments were partly a veiled criticism of the EU’s ‘Posted Workers Directive’ – a directive that brought 54,000 workers to the UK in 2015 – out of a total workforce of 31.million.
The extent to which the PWD has resulted in the ‘undercutting’ that Corbyn describes is debatable, to say the least. Only 17 percent of these workers came from low-waged countries, and the majority of PWD workers came from Ireland. The UK government’s own instructions to posted workers state clearly that ‘ If the country you’re posted to has a higher minimum wage, your employer must give you that rate or higher.’
So if this isn’t happening, then that is clearly a problem of national and local enforcement, rather than another EU ‘bosses club’ trick. In addition the European Union itself is seeking to reform the PWD to reduce the possibility of ‘undercutting’, as Corbyn admits in the same speech, when he acknowledges that:‘The European Union is set to make changes of its own in the coming period especially in relation to the rules governing Eurozone economies and the rights of temporary migrant workers.’
So does the EU’s commitment to ‘free market orthodoxy’ have its limitations then? Corbyn won’t admit anything of the kind. Instead he merely concludes that ‘It would therefore be wrong to sign up to a single market deal without agreement that our final relationship with the EU would be fully compatible with our radical plans to change Britain’s economy.’
Let’s leave aside the fact that Corbyn’s own proposals are no less nebulous and impossible to realize as May’s, and look at what else his ‘undercutting’ references to migrants ignore. Corbyn delivered his speech at a time when 3.4 million EU citizens in this country and 1.2 million Brits abroad remain ‘in limbo’ after more than eighteen months.
All of them are being forced to accept a new ‘settled status’ that will put many of them under huge emotional pressure, that amounts to a dimunition of the rights that they enjoyed when they came to the UK, and which will leave them at the mercy of the most brutal arm of the UK government: the Home Office. All EU nationals in the UK, are in the widest sense of the term ‘migrants’. Yet none of them have complained that they were ‘imported’ to the UK.
Corbyn, like so many members of the Labour left, ignores the free choices that they made. He ignores the fact that free movement is a far better way of preventing the exploitation and undercutting that he describes – when coupled with stricter local and national wage enforcement – than the kind of ‘control’ and restrictions that are likely to emerge post-Brext.
Corbyn could have made the argument that freedom of movement is one of the great progressive achievements of the European Union, compared with the closed borders of the 20th century and the gastarbeiter-type labour programmes that once left migrant workers far more unprotected than they are now. He could have discuss how trade unions might organise amongst migrants and non-migrant workers, and explained what a Labour government might do to enforce the minimum wage and prevent the kind of ‘undercutting’ that he describes.
He could have drawn attention to some of the recent successes achieved by smaller trade unions like United Voices of the World and the IWGB, which do organize amongst precarious migrant workers in various sectors. He could have pointed out that immigration has been broadly positive for the UK, that migrants create jobs and pay taxes. He could have pointed out that demographics, skill shortages, and an aging population mean that the UK will remain a country of migration for decades to come regardless of whether or not we stay in the European Union.
If politicians are not prepared to make these arguments, then they are conceding ground to the right no matter how progressive they wish to be. It’s no good saying that ‘ Migrants should not be scapegoated’ on one hand, and talking about ‘importing’ migrants and ‘undercutting’ on the other. If you do that you’re merely suggesting that immigration is bad but migrants shouldn’t be blamed for its essential badness.
But when it comes to migration, Corbyn’s Labour Party is just as cowardly as its predecessors have been, just as calculating in its willingness to harvest the anti-immigrant vote in marginal constituencies, just as as unwilling to challenge evidence-free assumptions.
And that may not mean that Corbyn has gone UKIP, let alone that he is blowing a dog whistle, but if he wishes to chart out a genuine progressive alternative then he will need to do a lot better than this.