The ideas proposed by Ed Miliband in his speech to the IPPR on immigration include forcing firms to disclose if over 1 in 4 of their employees are from overseas, tighter enforcement of wage controls and ultimately fine companies if they do not comply. While on the surface these measures seem reasonable enough and a genuine attempt at reconnecting with Labour's traditional base, they are in fact flawed on innumerable counts. Not only do these proposed solutions squirm uncomfortably around the basic principles of a free market to blatantly appease populous sentiment, they principally suggest a lack of faith in the British job market, wrongly suggesting that the economy would be revived if only we would let for more government intervention.
Matt Ridley in The Rational Optimist writes that innovation comes from a 'mating of ideas' and the allowance for a marketplace of thought through the exchange of expertise, something that immigration and free movement unquestionably does. Yet it appears that such classical liberalism has fallen out of favour with many a policy maker. Ed Miliband does not, and could not, deny the benefits of immigration, but such unconcealed populism, snide paternalism and unjustifiable protectionism that underline these policy ideas are not what are going to get British workers back into employment. It never has, it never will.
Study after study has shown that the vociferous arguments against immigration- chiefly that immigration strains the job market and undercuts wages are unfounded. This has long been known by advocates of the free market as Sam Bowman of The Adam Smith Institute outlines. Yet despite this, the readiness for political parties to latch onto flash-in-the-pan politics for electoral gain is maddeningly predictable. A politician's ability to say one thing to one group and then the complete opposite to another is an ever constant. Cynicism aside, it was Gordon Brown who at times, almost too earnestly, clamoured to advocate free trade on the international stage, yet was perfectly happy to coin the insidious phrase "British Jobs for British Workers" when facing a hostile electorate at home, as Daniel Hannan eloquently reminds us. David Cameron also advocates tougher immigration criteria and restrictions. No doubt balancing on the tightrope between the cuddly conservatism he wants to present and the true toryism he would like to impose on his Lib-Dem partners given the chance is an arduous task, but when it comes to immigration, neither party wants forgo the 'ordinary voters' and actually advocate the numerous benefits that immigration and free movement present to the economy.
It seems that there is broad consensus from the left and the right that Miliband showed great insight in apologising for Labour's record on immigration but as Jonathan Portes wrote in his article for The Independent, Labour shouldn't be. When Miliband states "We were dazzled by globalisation and too sanguine about its price" and that it is time "to offer working people a fair crack of the whip" it indicates a position of helplessness more than anything, that the UK was somehow duped by immigration and vulture-like foreigners swooping in to 'steal our jobs', of course a ludicrous notion only heard during economic downturns. Yet, more sinisterly it suggests that the British working population were wholly incapable of competing against their foreign counterparts to begin with, and if this is so, as Alex Massie argues the focus on immigration should be not on limiting it, but asking why British workers were so unprepared to compete against foreign jobseekers in the first place.
Miliband is right in one respect when he argues that we need a grown-up discussion on immigration, it is a pity then that his solutions are so far off the mark. Any solution which seeks to invoke protectionism, well intentioned or not, by regulating the job market, restricting open competition and closing access works against free market principles. It will in fact have the opposite effect as intended, making it harder for the unemployed to find work and weakening the economy in the process. It has been proven time and time again that such tactics do not kick-start growth but stunts it.
Immigration is too important an issue to be used for short term politics. As a country we should never become complacent over its benefits- the innovation, progress and prosperity immigration creates. These are points that in a recession, when cultural and economic tensions are increasing and therefore there is ever more temptation to create economic scapegoats, need to be stressed again and again. The inconvenient truth is that immigration benefits the economy more than it harms it. By proposing restrictive measures on what Miliband sees as over zealous capitalism in the hopes of protecting and nurturing home-grown talent, Miliband will in fact achieve neither goal. Instead he will be helping to promote an economic model that would do irrefutable damage to all.
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