Sunday, April 27, 2014

Why UKIP's getting it badly wrong...

Nigel Farrage’s interview where he claimed ‘no British person’ would be his secretary, and so he has to employ his German wife, has rightly been used as evidence of the confusion at the heart of UKIP. Evidently the UKIP leader has little knowledge of how plenty of ordinary British workers do far more unpleasant jobs, with worse hours, and for lower pay, than the good Frau Farrago.

However, the awkward pauses in the Nick Robinson encounter expose another significant hole in UKIP’s ideology and mission; and a hole that Nick Clegg has no interest in pointing out. Farrage did highlight that UKIP was not in favour of preventing immigration for skilled workers, which is why the thrust of their latest dubious election campaign is that Eastern Europeans are taking work from builders, not bankers. But what’s the difference?

The difference is that, at present, the labour market is robust enough to protect the pay and terms of those at the ‘top’ of the capital tree, but the working people at the ‘bottom’. When bankers leave Barclays they can find other jobs, allegedly on much better money, and even the shareholders can’t prevent massive remuneration packages to try and keep them in place, whereas a builder undercut by a migrant worker unaware of even their basic statutory rights has far fewer options on where to go. This is the very essence of a free market in labour, where those who are most vulnerable to the erratic and illogical whims of that market are left weakened by it.

This is why many ordinary working people are rightly wary of the EU. They work alongside migrant workers and see the poor treatment they receive, they see adverts exclusively posted in minority language newspapers, they see workforces of one ethnicity, and they know that immigration, in particular the unrestricted immigration from the EU, is threatening quality terms and conditions. This does not always manifest itself in hostility and bile, however – many successful campaigns to improve terms and conditions among migrant workers have been initiated by British colleagues. I have seen first-hand how solidarity with central and eastern European immigrants has resulted in fairer terms for all workers.

But undercut workers don’t sit on their laurels; they go out and find other work, other work often on worse terms. Farrago doesn’t understand this, which is why he looks so flummoxed when it’s put to him that unemployment is going down, even though the pool of potential immigrants is going up. The truth is that immigration policy isn’t taking jobs, but it is undermining terms and conditions. We don’t need fewer immigrants; immigration drives the economy, bringing innovation and skills, and, frankly, immigrants bring full working lives and young families to help support our ageing population.

What we need is better regulation and better protection for all workers. We need a higher baseline, meaning working people aren’t forced into a ‘race to the bottom’ of wages; we need freer and stronger trades unions to build solidarity, democracy and humanity to an irrational labour market. In this way, the dynamism of immigrants can drive an economy that works for everyone, not just those who run dubious agencies or greedy managers.

And this is the reason why Farrago and UKIP don’t have convincing answers to the problems experienced by working people. Farrago is opposed to regulations that strengthen workers’ rights – just a few weeks ago, UKIP MEPs were voting against legislation to strengthen the rights of workers to equal pay irrespective of gender.

UKIP’s opposition to the EU is based on jingoistic nationalism, and little else. Underneath it all they are harsh, Thatcherite Conservatives. They want workers to have few rights in an unregulated market, it’s just they don’t like a free market that includes Johnny Foreigner. They believe that growth is limitless and can continue creating jobs forever, as long as we don’t restrict capitalism – but they tell the public that there’s a finite amount of jobs to go ‘round. It’s ludicrous. However, what’s more unsettling is the line taken by the Liberal Democrats against this confused manifesto.

Nick Clegg didn’t spend his TV time advocating for a social EU, fighting for a higher baseline for workers. Nick Clegg’s view is that we should stay in a bosses’ EU, with a free market for labour, squeezing working families and exploiting immigrants. He’s not proposing a bold vision for an EU that works for me and you, just one that works for him, the metropolitan elite and big corporations. What’s more, he is prepared to sacrifice national sovereignty and identity on the altar of free-market capitalism. It’s the worst of all possible worlds.

Labour, however, does have answers to these questions, and is getting bolder about stating them. Whether it be at home in presenting clear plans on zero-hours contracts, or in the EU supporting rights for agency workers, Labour is getting the cost of living questions right. It’s why the Party of European Socialists is proposing an EU-wide framework on adequate minimum wages across Europe. It’s why Labour will ban recruitment agencies that hire only foreign workers. Across Labour’s economic policy, we have a new understanding that it’s not a simple question of ‘more jobs’ but ‘more jobs and on better terms’.

 The real question is not simply about being in or out of the EU, it’s who European Union works for, and at the minute, we need to put the brakes on its assault on the terms and conditions of working people – whether it be explicitly in Greece and Ireland or through its insufficient protections for workers. Labour’s vision is increasingly becoming one of an EU for ordinary working people.

If you didn’t guess, that’s why I’m voting Labour on the 22nd May.