Prior to the release of UK Labour’s manifesto, Unite Union General Secretary Len McCluskey come out in the media saying it would be unwise for the party to support extending free movement of migration with Europe. My first question for any trade union leader when they make these sorts of comments is: are you representing the majority view of your union membership? Or have you assumed that as a union leader you can express your personal view without seeking wider endorsement?
I am a Unite Union member, and have been since I moved to the UK in 2017. I can confirm that in that time, rank and file members have not voted to take a position opposing free movement with Europe. In fact Unite as a union with over 1.3 million members have a range of views on topics such as immigration.
In the autumn edition of Unite Works the union paper, there was an article which pointed out that the number of EU migrants working on UK farms had dropped by 10% in 2017 after the Brexit referendum result. The article went onto say that due to labour shortages crops could be “left to rot.” (Farmageddon, Unite Works autumn 2019). McCluskey’s intervention in the general election on this issue seems to contradict the concerns raised in the Unite paper just weeks earlier.
Immigration is a fraught issue. Human being have been moving throughout the history of our species. It is how we have evolved. The idea of the modern nation state is only a few hundred years old, and for most of our species existence on this planet nation states have not existed. Nation borders are often arbitrary and based on historical divisions or conflicts. And we know from even recent history these lines are often moving and evolving.
For all the scaremongering about immigration, there are plenty of economic arguments for letting in migrants. Research from University College London shows that migrants from the European Economic Area contributed 34% more in taxes than they received in benefits between 2001 and 2011.
Yet this isn’t the message we hear from politicians…
The general impression regarding migration is that migrants are a drain on public services and society. In response to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, internationally politicians have tended to turn the blame on migrants, rather than on the financial institutions and systems that caused the crash. This has mostly come from those on the political right, though often the left have failed to be strong on this issue. In the 2015 election, then UK Labour Leader Ed Miliband decided the best way to beat UKIP and the Conservatives was to steal their policies. Miliband announced that Labour would support tougher immigration controls, though was opposed by others in the party including now Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbott. Unsurprisingly, Miliband lost the 2015 election, making even David Cameron appear a strong competent leader in comparison.
Labour’s immigration policy has moved on since 2015, despite the best efforts of Len McCluskey.
My personal experience as a migrant to the UK from New Zealand is that it isn’t easy. I’m English speaking, university educated, white, male and from a middle class background. I have it way easier than most migrants. Yet there are a number of restrictions on the type of work I can do as well as restrictions on access to public services in the UK. Also the process of getting a UK visa was costly, time consuming and involved jumping through many hoops.
Conversely I know many people in England who would love to immigrate to New Zealand. However if you are over 30, don’t have very specific qualifications or a high income it is incredibly difficult. Logic would suggest that there must be a way to make it easier for English people to move to New Zealand and Australia, and vice versa. The numbers moving between these countries would be comparable.
More broadly, I have moved on from my radical socialist days when I believed all immigration controls should be scrapped. While total free movement of people would be ideal, in the current economic and geo political model it would be impractical. But trying to restrict the movement of people is like trying to control the tide. Humans always have and always will move around the planet. And by and large it is a positive thing. What we need are sensible immigration polices by domestic governments that allow immigration to occur in a sustainable and equitable way. And more importantly, we need strengthened and properly democratic global governance structures to support national governments and allow this to happen.
But most importantly, we can’t be succumbing to fear campaigns about immigration causing a crisis. The economic arguments do not support this. The economic hardships people face in the UK and globally were caused by a financial crisis, the root cause of which is still to be addressed. Continued attacks on migrants for this is at best a distraction, and at worst feeds xenophobia and fear in our communities.