Globalisation has generally been unkind to the young. Yet, as a demographic, we took its side in the EU referendum. Because ultimately the union has positively shaped our culture, as global business, and academic ties, bought international communities together all over Europe. This type of integration has profoundly enriched the way of life in the metropolis. But it would be incorrect to think that people all over the country are benefitting in the same way, because this level of cohesion is politically disallowed from crossing beyond the city confines. Indeed, the impact of globalisation, and the nature of integration, has been overwhelmingly detrimental elsewhere in the country.
In the places where people feel more English than British, where they proudly drape St Georges’ Cross outside their windows, multinational corporations have centralised power and Thatcherite politics have seen the collapse of proud British industries which once formed the basis of their livelihoods. In place of these, there now exist warehouses of cheap exploitative labour. Take for instance the Sports Direct warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, described reproachfully as “the gulag”, where employees are subjected to the sort of draconian conditions you’d typically associate with a sweatshop. It is here where we learn the true meaning of the immigration problem.
Unskilled workers are put on short term, insecure contracts, that effectively pay less than minimum wage. But this can still be quite attractive to those living abroad in countries where the standard of living and pay is generally poorer. And stagnating or falling wages do not have the same level of devastating consequence for, say, a young person from Eastern Europe than for a low income family in Britain. So when these massive corporations expand, relying on unskilled labour, there is a greater influx of economic migration. Which in turn creates a greater competition for jobs. The result is that wages have fallen and jobs have become more insecure for everyone in that sector. In this part of the country, the only true beneficiaries of free movement of labour are the multinational corporations. So it’s all well and good to dish out the “immigration has had a net positive impact on our economy” line, but if you’re wondering why people didn’t believe this, it’s because, for them, it simply was not true. Indeed, when we focus on low income work, we find that a 1% increase in the proportion of migrants is coupled with a 0.6% decrease in wages.
So if we want to combat this issue, a first step could be to change the laws which allow for these exploitative working conditions to exist in the first place and to punish those responsible for the atrocities that have occurred. And we also need a positive message, we need to reinvigorate industry in these areas by expanding the renewable energy and technology sector. Furthermore, we would need to work within Europe to address the wider inequalities that created the conditions for this kind of migration.
Indeed, when we focus on low income work, we find that a 1% increase in the proportion of migrants is coupled with a 0.6% decrease in wages.
But in order for our ideas to come into fruition, we need to do something difficult. We need to acknowledge that it wasn’t evil multinational corporations or low wages that concerned people primarily. The number one issue, in the run up to the referendum, was immigration itself, which suggests these problems have profoundly affected society, beyond economic lines.
In the hostile environment created by competition for jobs, coupled with cuts to the NHS and education, we couldn’t possibly have thought that social cohesion would come naturally. For the small town working class family, the decline of the high streets, the increase in cheap unskilled labour and the fall in wages had, in all practical senses, come about when the Eastern Europeans moved in next door. When we look at areas like Boston, Lincolnshire where just over three quarters of the population voted to leave the EU, we do not see a melting pot but a deeply divided community struggling with the social and economic pressures of immigration, that this detrimental effect of globalisation has brought.
So it is no surprise that when we on the left talk about social inequality, housing and the NHS, without mentioning immigration, it comes across as insincere. And perhaps it is insincere, because these vagaries of anti-austerity politics do not specifically target these communities. By not addressing this then, rather than divorce the immigration problem from the individual migrants themselves, we are allowing these social tensions to fester.
But the interesting thing is that the Conservative party themselves, for all their grand anti-immigration rhetoric, do not understand the nature of the problem either. During all her years as Home Secretary, Theresa May’s immigration policies only targeted foreign students and non-EU nationals – factions of our international society who were never considered part of the problem. So maybe there is a clear space for us to develop a direct, bold and compassionate alternative to immigration control but that can only come when we admit there is a problem.
We see then that the left wing has been harbouring a massive elephant in the room. One which tells us that we are at an impasse, where our devotion to internationalism is at odds with our devotion to the disadvantaged communities we represent. Perhaps we can resolve the conflict in a way that allows us to stay true to both but, if we truly wish to tackle the morass of issues that underpin the immigration problem, we need to start by uttering the words themselves. I do not know where to go from there, but what I do know is that we’re going precisely nowhere if we continue to treat problem as if it exists solely on the economic plane.
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