This article was published in Tribune

Labour must avoid xenophobia at all costs

25 June 2010
Some among the Labour leadership contenders have found a reason why we lost the election: Johnny Foreigner. It’s nice, convenient – and utterly wrong.

So it’s the immigrants who are to blame. Like other Labour people, I have been looking for the over-arching reason why we lost the general election. Now some among the Labour leadership contenders have found a reason: Johnny Foreigner. It’s nice, convenient – and utterly wrong.

I cut my teeth in Labour politics in Birmingham in the 1970s. Then working-class support for Enoch Powell’s hostility to foreigners was all the rage. “They” were being let into Britain and were stealing “our” jobs. No one ever stopped a white Brit working as a bus conductor or prevented a white English woman from becoming a nurse. No one has ever prevented white British men from working in construction, but somehow, over a century or more, we have imported millions of Irishmen to do this work. Even today, the biggest group of non-British people from the European Union working on the London Olympics site are Irish. And yes, among them will be some – not many – who work the benefits system and repatriate benefits to Ireland.

Should we re-open European Union treaties to deal with this abuse? I wish any minister in Dublin luck as he or she explains to the Irish why European rules on the free movement of people now need to be revised. The French have long complained about the 500,000 Brits living in France fiddling benefits for children back home. And let us hope no Spanish politician starts to take serious issue with the 900,000 Brits living in Spain, of whom few have even bothered to try to learn any Spanish.

Britain has always known how to reduce the number of non-Brits coming to work in this country. It is called mass unemployment. The Tories are right to say there were fewer Europeans coming to work here when they were last in power. The reason was the four million unemployed at the height of Thatcherism. Instead we had the Auf Wiedersehen, Pet generation of British workers who headed off to booming Germany to undercut German wages by working in the black economy.

In fact, if you go to Berlin now, you will hear Polish and other east European languages, because it is a myth that denying Europeans the legal right to work stops them coming to find jobs that the indigenous population won’t do.

The Polish workers who came to Britain after 2004 did so because Gordon Brown, advised by Ed Balls, had shaped Europe’s most dynamic economy. Britain created more new companies and needed more new labour than nearly every other EU member state between 1997 and 2007.

Spain saw three million immigrants entering its booming economy between 1995 and 2005. There are 500,000 Albanians in Italy, even though Albania is not in the EU. Since 1990, the United States economy has attracted nearly 50 million immigrants – half of them illegal or undocumented.

The far right-wing Michal Kaminski, who David Cameron installed as leader of Tory MEPs in Strasbourg, is known for standing outside Warsaw railway station handing out leaflets to Ukrainians telling them to go home, as they should not come to Poland and undercut the wages of Polish workers.

The Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition may solve Britain’s “immigrant” problem quickly, as its cuts lead to deeper recession and firms laying off staff. However, behind the moans about east Europeans lies a deeper racism about “Pakis” and Muslims. We should not pander to this atavism.

Already there are more east Europeans leaving than coming to Britain as the recession bites and the sharply devalued pound means that wages and overtime in this country are worth 30 per cent less when sent home as ­zlotys. Meanwhile, the private rented sector has enjoyed a boom, as has the Roman Catholic Church, whose pews are filling up with believers. Fruit that otherwise would rot in East Anglia has been picked so that British strawberries are on sale in supermarkets. Our cars can be hand-washed for a fiver and caf├ęs are open 18 hours a day.

Certainly, under Labour we needed stronger trade union laws to support British workers and an improved education system that supported working-class jobs and let children leave school at 16with employability skills. Many employers say that, after 13 years of the Labour Government, they were required to teach basic skills to young workers. Can we blame any for hiring a Pole or Litvak who already had those skills? And how many firms kept operating in Britain instead of re-locating abroad because they had a flexible labour market? There have been many proposals emanating from the European Parliament or the European Commission designed to support workers in Britain, whether “native” or foreign. Without exception, these were opposed the Treasury, its ministers and special advisors.

Two years ago, the Federation of Poles in Britain produced a report showing 80 xenophobic anti-Polish headlines in one newspaper over a short period. That paper was the Daily Mail. Must Labour go down the Mail road?