Socialist Worker

Labour’s mixed up message on migration

Andy Burnham’s speech welcomed refugees but said migrants cause low wages, says Tomáš Tengely-Evans

Issue No. 2474

labour’s shadow home secretary Andy Burnham blames free movement of European migrants for poor wages of British workers and the pressure on public services

labour’s shadow home secretary Andy Burnham blames free movement of European migrants for poor wages of British workers and the pressure on public services (Pic: Flickr/Labour Party )

Labour’s shadow home secretary Andy Burnham told the party’s conference he is “on a mission to win back those lost Labour voters from Ukip”. 

“Not by copying them in any way,” he added, “but by being true to our values.” Burnham seemed to break Labour from the racist bidding war about what party can be toughest on migrants. 

He rightly attacked David Cameron for calling refugees a “swarm” and said Britain should do more to help refugees. This partly reflects the groundswell of solidarity with refugees from ordinary people.

But barely pausing for a breath, he revealed a less welcome strategy on immigration. He explained that he wants to “build goodwill” with Europe’s rulers to help Labour “get changes on EU (European Union) migration ahead of the referendum”.

He said that free movement of labour in Europe undercuts people’s wages “in our poorest communities” and creates a race to the bottom.

So Labour is sending out a mixed and confusing message. Refugees are welcome—but European migrants are not.

That’s because Burnham wants Britain to remain in the EU, in line with bosses’ needs, but wants to keep union leaders on board.

Many unions, such as the GMB and Unite, are beginning to waver on EU membership. 

For GMB leader Sir Paul Kenny, the EU is based on a trade-off between a “social Europe” and free movement. He argues that without social protection, workers are undercut by immigration.


Burnham hopes that taking a bigger share of refugees will mean Germany allows Britain to renegotiate immigration policy.

While he and the union leaders publicly reject scapegoating, they fuel right wing myths that migrant workers undercut wages (see right). 

Kenny argued “damn the exploiter, not the exploited” and said the GMB will always organise migrant workers. But he also argued that unions should reconsider their position on the free movement of labour, because neoliberalism has undermined “social Europe”.

So Burnham argued that free movement “has benefited private companies more than people and communities”. 

He claimed migrants “undercut wages”, “undermined job security” and put pressure on public services.

Many are presenting this as a shift to the left because of the rhetoric about protecting workers.

In contrast, Blarities are in favour of EU immigration because it fulfils bosses’ needs for skilled workers. Failed leadership candidate Liz Kendall said she hated Labour’s racist “controls on immigration” mug.

The same arguments are now being used by the Labour right’s ironically named “Red Shift” project. It argues that Labour needs a series of “red shifts” to win in England by dumping neoliberalism and dressing up chauvinism in socialist rhetoric. 

But accepting that migrants undercut wages helps the idea of “British jobs for British workers” and divides working class people. 

The Tories, the EU and bosses are tearing apart workers’ and migrants’ rights. That means the unions need to stand up for their rights across Europe.

Bosses, not migrants, undercut wages

The right wing argument that immigration undercuts wages has become common sense, including among some socialists and union leaders. 

Workers’ wages suffered the longest sustained fall since the 1870s during the recent crisis. But this was not because of migrants—the flow of migrants has fallen during the recession. 

But studies repeatedly find no relationship between immigration and wages. Workers’ rights and free movement are not, as some union leaders argue, a trade-off. 

A London School of Economics (LSE) study from 2015, Immigration and the UK Labour Market, found that “there is still no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration on jobs, wages, housing or the crowding out of public services”.

More specifically, it found “little evidence” of a strong correlation between changes in wages of British workers and changes in local area immigrant share.

Max Nathan’s study in 2011 also showed that migration made no change to average wages. 

The 1950s were a period of rising wages and living standards but more migrants were also coming into Britain. 

In contrast, there was practically no immigration in the 1930s—yet wages fell and unemployment soared.

Building bosses warned that London and the South East alone would see a 20 percent labour shortfall in 2014. 


So they recruited thousands of migrant workers on London construction sites—but industry wages are booming. 

The general fall in wages is because of the Tories and the bosses, who’ve tried to make workers pay for the crisis.

The Tories imposed a pay freeze on all public sector workers and are now continuing it into this parliament. 

Health, local government and civil service workers have all seen their wages fall. Private sector bosses have also slashed wages.  

Many businesses in Britain rely on a highly skilled and trained workforce to make their big profits. 

When the recession hit they didn’t turn to mass sackings, because rehiring and retraining workers would be expensive. Instead, bosses tried to slash their wage bill to keep profit levels up.

Wages are determined by the struggle between bosses and workers—bosses will always try and pay as little as possible and get around legal protections.

Workers can fight back. But to be effective we need unity with migrant workers—and playing into right wing myths weakens that. 

Union leaders have said they’ll strike against low pay—it’s time for them to lead that fight. 

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.