I’m prompted to ask by Ed Miliband’s remarks on immigration.
The significant thing is that he has made any at all. In his acceptance speech, he said:
We didn’t listen enough to people’s concerns about immigration. We should have done more to protect people’s wages and conditions.And in his leadership speech, he said:
All of us heard it on the doorsteps about immigration. Like the man I met in my constituency who told me he had seen his mates' wages driven down by the consequences of migration.But here’s my problem. Even if we concede that immigration has worsened the labour market conditions of the worst off, we must - surely - accept that it is only one factor of many doing so. The emergence of a reserve army (pdf) of labour in India and China, the technical change that allows jobs to be offshored, skill-biased (pdf) technical change and power-biased technical change all have the same effect - and probably more so.
If we don't understand why he would feel angry - and it wasn't about prejudice - then we are failing to serve those who we are in politics to represent.
But Miliband did not mention any of these. And yet any serious concern about the interests of workers would probably give them higher priority than immigration. Which suggests that Miliband - as you’d expect from a democratic politician - is more interested in people’s expressed preferences than in their objective interests.
But here’s the question. Does this matter? It does, if you think that immigration controls are sufficient to raise workers’ living standards.
Luckily, though, Miliband hasn’t (yet) explicitly embraced this imbecility. Instead, he called yesterday for “proper labour standards in our economy, including real protection for agency workers.”
The virtue of such a policy - vague as it is - is that it is cause-independent. You don‘t have to believe that immigration is bad for workers to support it, as it defends workers against pressures on wages and conditions, regardless of their source.
I’d like to think that Miliband is being very smart here, and is using (largely) mistaken and reactionary beliefs about immigration as a force for truer egalitarianism. But I fear this would be too optimistic a reading.