The British Labour Party can no longer afford to keep running away from immigration. Britain’s vote to leave the EU exposed a wide gap between most of the party’s members and leaders (who support complete freedom of movement) and many of its natural working-class voters (who do not).
The first group makes its stand on internationalist grounds, or because they think the economy demands it. The second is made up of people battered by global forces they cannot see. For them, globalisation takes the form of the immigrant who seems to take scarce jobs or overwhelm public services that have already been cut to the bone.
Labour has tried to square this circle before by treating concerns about immigration as a proxy for something else. The party’s current solutions – improved public investment, migrant impact funds and so on – would certainly revive jobs and growth in the north, the Midlands, and other bastions of the left-behind leavers. But Labour often prefers to label anyone with concerns about immigration itself as a racist and a bigot, as former prime minister Gordon Brown so memorably did in 2010.
At other times it has offered Britain the chance to buy a nasty (if vague) tea mug with “controls on immigration” printed on the side. This is not a coherent policy. It must change or else the real racists and bigots will move in to fill the vacuum.
Who were the knights?
To change the debate without evading it we can learn from the labour movement’s past. In the first great age of globalisation, at the end of the 19th century, an American movement called the Knights of Labor faced similar problems to those that confront British labour today.
They organised more than a million American workers in the 1880s, when more than half a million people entered the US on average each year. That number exceeds current net migration to the UK – and at a time when the American population was only three quarters of the British population now. The knights, worried that immigration on this scale would overwhelm unions, lower wages, make locals unemployed, and leave big business in total control, had to face the issue or be swept away.
Not all of their solutions bear repeating today. They demanded, for instance, the total exclusion of Chinese immigrants from the US on crude racist grounds. Some called for limits on eastern and southern European immigrants too. Yet they never – unlike, say, Donald Trump – thought that a big wall along the borders could solve their problems. When immigrants arrived, they tried to organise them, with some success. They refused to call for a blanket ban on all immigration. Instead, they singled out one kind of immigration, “contract labour”, and demanded the government end it.
Contract labour originally referred to workers brought in from overseas already under contract to an employer. Knights expanded that term to include immigrants recruited by employers and agencies as soon as they disembarked in the New World. American businesses in the 1880s used these practices to break strikes, undermine union shops, and pay lower wages than they could get from recruiting at home.
The knights never managed to prevent the exploitation of newly-arrived immigrants. They did go all out to ban the importation of workers under contract, and hired a lobbyist in Washington DC to carry their point to Congress. They succeeded in 1885, when the Foran Act made it illegal.
Low-wage workers direct
Contract labour has returned with a vengeance in Britain today. Many recruitment agencies attract foreign workers, particularly those from eastern Europe, to work in agriculture, food processing and other industries. Loopholes in EU and UK law allow some of these employers and agencies to avoid treating their workers as permanent staff. There are even reports that some pay immigrant workers below the minimum wage and stuff them in dangerously overcrowded housing. Unions are naturally left out of the picture.
Laws and regulations exist to prevent these abuses. But the recent workforce scandal at Sports Direct, where many eastern European immigrant agency workers also suffered from extreme forms of exploitation, makes it clear that these laws are not fully enforced.
The same contract labour that led American trade unionists into the congressional lobby in 1885 is back in 21st-century Britain. It has the same poor effect on local wages and employment and on the health, well-being and dignity of the immigrants themselves.
A practical solution
If Labour made this into a major issue it might be possible to shift the immigration debate in its favour. Do not stop immigrants from coming to Britain to work but impose stricter regulations on the agencies that hire them. Demand that employers hire their workers directly where possible.
Help unions to monitor working conditions in all vulnerable industries, and to protect union members and non-members in those industries. Force the government to reverse cuts to legal protections for migrant labourers. Make it clear that British people are against exploitative practices but not the immigrants hurt by them.
In short, ban contract labour and champion the rights of immigrants. Instead of blaming low wages on them we can place the blame where it really lies: with exploitative agencies and employers.
Unions have campaigned on this issue before. It even appeared in the 2015 Labour manifesto, but was overshadowed by that notorious mug. It looks as if both Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and challenger Owen Smith (in a rather different way) might make more of it as the contest for the Labour leadership continues.
Of course, the Knights of Labor found that banning contract labour was not a panacea for all the problems of immigration. We should not think so either. But it might start to change the terms of the debate. Then, at least, Labour has a chance to connect with its disaffected voters and reverse the trend towards bigotry and prejudice that threatens all of us, British or not.