Groping in the Dark: Jack Straw and the Irrelevance of the Left By Carl Rowlands

2 DEcember 2013 — New Left Project

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. – Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Fans of Victorian melodrama will no doubt be familiar with this famous extended metaphor, used by Dickens to capture how public affairs could be conducted without humanity, insight or clarity. There are few better examples of obfuscated politics than the debate currently being staged on the subject of EU immigration.

No-one knows exactly how many people have moved to the UK from Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Baltic countries. Despite this, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has said that immediately admitting workers from the 2004 EU accession countries into the UK labour market was, in his words, a ‘mistake.’ Blithely untroubled by the paucity of evidence relating to numbers of immigrants and the impact of immigration, Straw is attempting to tap into popular unease about the consequences of freedom of movement within the EU (and, a more cynical observer might suggest, to drum up interest in his recently published memoirs.) 

On the basis of some estimates, we think that historically high levels of immigration have occurred in the last thirty years in the UK, as well as historically high levels of emigration outwards. Eastern European migrants represent some part of the UK’s immigrant population, but not, it seems, the most significant part. It should be remembered that around 500,000 people arrive or depart from the UK every day, according to airport statistics. This is an important point, a clear, measurable and technological aspect, to which politicians often seem strangely oblivious. We live in the Jet Age. 

Given the ‘churn’ of people in transit, it’s very hard to determine what a ‘migrant’ actually is. Regarding those immigrants who are in the UK on a long-term basis, and have children, we can discern a few clear details.  For example, one million schoolchildren in the UK use English as a second language. In primary schools, one in six children do not speak English as a first language. In order, the most popular languages of these children are Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Somali, Polish, Arabic, Portuguese, Turkish and Tamil. Everybody else, other than these children, are not being fully accounted for. 

In the gloom, nasty things are going on. Politicians who are subtly in favour of immigration, like those on the liberal-capitalist wing of the Conservative Party, have been studiously silent on the problems faced by many migrants, including exploitative low wages, slum landlords and the horrors of working in the black economy; whilst public sector workers in health, housing and education have apparently come under pressure, both from the numbers of people in certain areas and also, perhaps, as a result of an increasingly fraught political discourse. 

We hear stories about people from Hungary or Slovakia cramming into small flats and houses in order to survive on a UK minimum wage. But these can be counterbalanced by other, cosier tales, of computer programmers and health professionals, quietly attempting to build a career. One might expect Norman Tebbit to be proud of such a determined work ethic, as Thatcherism goes ‘a la Euro.’ Somewhere, in the midst of it all, are people, escaping from poverty, even oppression. Perhaps in the case of British migrants leaving the UK, the escape is from a life of commuting and clock-watching, and having to listen to Jack Straw. 

It is possible that, as Deborah Orr argues in the Guardian, New Labour advisers in 2004 saw inward migration as a way for the UK economy to benefit from a form of immigration that was less culturally demanding: all the benefits of an expanding labour force as a wage control mechanism, with reduced risks of cultural, religious or ethnic friction. On the other hand, it is also possible that EU enlargement was seen by the UK as, simply, an opportunity for certain British companies, and that little serious thought went into the finer details. We don’t always know where fog starts and ends, or how much is really by design. 

There may have been no European Capitalist Masterplan, but different parts certainly seem to click together in an eerily effective way. We can say, generally, that the developments of the 1990s resulted in the impoverishment of much of the former Eastern Bloc. Shock therapy shattered the existing economic relationships that ensured the operation of heavy industry; those Gdansk shipyards that had backed Lech Walesa as a hero of independent trades unionism slowly ground to a halt when faced with the cold realities of neo-liberal global economics. Internal division between the EU’s core and periphery has been cemented by the events of recent years. In this context, the natural tendency for people to seek work and money can be exploited by big capital. Flexible, casualised employees working for low wages might be part of a wider plan for liberalisation, for competing with China. As such, free movement of labour might be favoured as a substitute for genuine investment. . Economic migrants fit neatly into a UK marked by stagnant levels of productivity, together with a stable employment rate. 

In such a context it may be problematic to focus strictly on the skills that EU migrants may or may not bring to the UK. We know, for example, that in the UK labour market there is a decreasing probability that graduates of universities will find graduate-level employment, and that many will be pushed into taking low-waged employment as a result. True, the evidence we have, much of which precedes the financial crash in 2008, suggests that the effect of migration on average wages is almost negligible, whilst the effects on the position of low-waged workers appear more pronounced, though still not huge. But because we lack accurate estimates of the number of migrants and of effects of their participation in the labour market, data is marshalled by opposing sides to contest a debate that it can never decisively resolve. In this situation, much of the data casts only a pale, weak light across the political landscape. In the context of a society with massive wealth inequality, it is likely that subjective experiences, or perceptions, of being displaced by migrants will be especially powerful. This is treacherous political territory. 

Into this murk strides Jack Straw. Like other Labour politicians of his era, he hasn’t been known for expressing concern about stagnating real wages in the UK. Nor did he oppose expansion of the European Union. Yet having not vetoed the expansion, the UK could only ever have succeeded in doing what Germany had managed, by securing a temporary delay to the freedom of labour. It’s doubtful whether this would have been a serious deterrent to people wanting to work. Underneath the niceties, the real political debate in the UK might be between those who want to leave the EU altogether, represented on the right by the UK Independence Party, and those who see the EU as enabling a desirable form of liberal globalisation; the Europe imagined by Michael Heseltine or Peter Mandelson. The social-democratic left, advocates of a social Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, are lost somewhere in the densest part of the fog, rendered practically irrelevant to this debate in the absence of a serious plan to reduce inequality within the EU and within EU countries themselves. 

The current debate in the UK doesn’t even touch on some of the major questions thrown up by large-scale immigration. Do ‘we’ actually want people to stay in their villages, working happily in farms and in factories? Does modern Britain truly have international business aspirations—is the UK really ‘open for business,’ as the Coalition government has repeatedly argued? Do we accept this Jet Age of upheaval, urban life and modernity? Can immigration resulting from rampant inequality—the geo-political ‘push’ and ‘pull’ between core and periphery—ever redress inequality at its core? Or does it usually displace the discussion, diverting the conversation into a defence of access and birthright? Does immigration really exacerbate inequality, or can it provide limited redress to those most in need? In the midst of this confusion, ignorance and apprehension, there is, however, something that perhaps unites an increasingly incoherent Conservative England with the political culture of the countries of the former Eastern Bloc: disillusionment, resentment and cynicism, and a deep mistrust of politicians. 

Contrary to portrayals in the tabloids, EU migrants to the UK are an extremely heterogeneous group, many from countries with a tradition of enmity towards each other. As a result, it is probably true that EU nationals are just as unclear about how many other migrants are currently living in the UK. There is no formal association, and almost nothing by way of political representation. Therefore, the worst kinds of political opportunists stake out their battle to find the next easy targets. The Prime Minister can claim that restrictions on benefits for EU migrants are necessary, despite there being no reliable indicators of how many EU migrants are currently claiming benefits in the UK, where they come from, or how long they have been here. In the murkiest depths of confusion, one can make out the lighting of torches.

Carl Rowlands is an activist and occasional writer based in Budapest

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