The following is a speech given by Tim Pendry, co-owner, Director and Chairman of TPPR Public Affairs, for the Conference on the Middle East Migration Crisis: Genesis and Response hosted by Initiatives of Change in collaboration with the Next Century Foundation.
Seven minutes is not a great deal of time to provide a creative solution to our biggest current challenge – the mass migration not only of the dispossessed by war but of the global poor under conditions of globalisation. The crisis is not just one of the Middle East and Europe. It is a global crisis. I have just time to propose one big political shift of emphasis.
TPPR is primarily an adviser to the private sector on the risk implications of changes in our political situation. We have been much preoccupied with Brexit which comes to a head on Thursday. The Brexit Debate contains important lessons for us. Basically, the liberal middle classes want idealism from their leafy suburbs while many working class people would like some compassion directed at their situation instead.
The cultural idealist in the metropolis who has done well out of globalisation has suddenly faced a revolt from half his fellows. The latter have realised, perhaps too late, that they have one shot at recovering their old cultural status before, not migrants, but the liberal middle classes in all its manifestations confirm their minority status in their own land.
Migration is too often framed as one of humanitarian duty against racism and xenophobia. But it is also one of class, of classes that see themselves (whether petit-bourgeois East Coast shopkeeper or working class Northerner) not merely as the general losers in the globalisation game but as on the edge of permanent insecurity and exploitation because of it.
The numbers of migrants is always exaggerated in political discourse but this truth is often used as an excuse to try to dismiss complainants as irrational or vicious. In fact, their protest is rational on several grounds.
First, the flow of migrants is increasing. They are not fools in the belief that assimilated migrants will come to be a permanent voting bloc working with the liberal-minded middle classes to steer resources ever more in the direction of those with the political power. The fears are anticipatory and correct.
Second, they see free movement of labour, in association with the capture of their political movements by the middle classes, including the official conservative parties, as a means of atomising them and driving down wage rates but it also observably increases competition for scarce resources especially housing.
Many working people see what happens when unscrupulous exploitative business takes up the opportunity of cheap labour without having to invest in social infrastructure, the social capital needed to sustain the communities into which the migrants are also inserted without much social support other than the family, clan or tribe.
Third, the average working class reaction to people from faraway places and different cultures begins with being tolerant (although, of course there are a minority of fascists in these communities) but resentment grows – yet not necessarily because of the migrant …
When the dominant culture – the world of government and the BBC to oversimplify – engages in what the local community thinks of as an intrusive positive discrimination in which its own history and values are disrespected, it is this disrespect, anticipatory of humiliation, which becomes the problem.
The best of the Left has always tried to point out that an exploited white working class person and an exploited migrant have the same problem at heart. In general, the British working class has not been averse to this. Many of these issues would certainly be less salient if the globalising system had not resulted in an economic crash in 2008 in which the higher you were up the middle class food chain, the less likely you were to be hurt.
But now we are in the economic doldrums. Large numbers of people feel disrespected and under threat. Nor are they are wrong in seeing their problems increase if cheap labour is to be the engine that tries to keep a failing economic system alive until the next innovation-led economic cycle many years away.
And the creative solution to the long term problem of refugee and even economic migrant acceptability? We step back and give ourselves a three, perhaps even seven, year breathing space in which the West allows itself to put up some sufficient short term barriers to totally free movement of labour in order to buy itself valuable time.
Why? To allow the human-all-too-human to adjust to new conditions and prepare for the next economic cycle. To reconstruct a culture of respect for the ordinary person whether native or migrant. To put idealistic liberals back in their box as the dominant political species. To put in place the necessary managed system of migration control.
The positive results would be a breathing space for more toleration, less populism, more acceptance of those migrants who are here, the ending of an exploitative labour market, the political consensus for vital social investment overseas and the eventual widespread social acceptance of a restoration of moderate managed migration with an adequate infrastructure.