Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable campaign for the Labour leadership has parallels in other countries – not only in Europe but in America, where a little-known veteran politician on the left has suddenly emerged as a candidate for the highest office. Bernie Sanders is 73 and advertises himself as a democratic socialist. He wants America to be more like Scandinavia, with higher taxes and cradle-to-grave free welfare services for all. He is speaking to record crowds wherever he goes and commentators are starting to say he might beat Hilary Clinton to be the Democratic Party’s candidate for next year’s presidential elections. Have a look at this.
Sanders’ message is a simple one – the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in America:
The issue of wealth and income inequality, to my mind, is the great moral issue of our time. It is the great economic issue of our time and it is the great political issue of our time. Let me be as clear as I can be: There is something profoundly wrong when today, the top one-tenth of one percent own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.
He is right, of course and our society in Britain is also becoming less and less equal. Suddenly, this seems to be something politicians can say and get away with saying. Suddenly, socialism is becoming fashionable – perhaps even in America where it has never been fashionable before. In Britain, the Labour Party had put socialism behind it, but in doing so had lost its working-class base. These old Labour votes are ones UKIP was beginning to attract. If Corbyn revives the Labour vote, how should UKIP respond?
Leaving our own problems aside for a moment, let’s look across the Atlantic. Why are the rich getting richer in America and the poor getting poorer? There is actually an important factor, which Bernie Sanders prefers not to talk about. It’s immigration. Immigration levels in the United States in the last few decades are very comparable with those in the UK and Western Europe generally. Precise figures are hard to come by because of high levels of illegal immigration, mainly across the long and vulnerable Mexican border, but official US figures show that immigrants went from 9% of the labour force in 1990 to 16% in 2011. UK figures for those in employment show that here, immigrants went from 7% in 1993 to 15% in 2013.
We are frequently told that immigrants make a net contribution to the overall economy. They may or may not do so, but the overall economy has to expand to accommodate them. Immigrants take jobs which would have been done by members of the existing population and they reduce wages generally by their competition. They use all the infrastructure and facilities of the country to which they come, capital assets built up over centuries which the existing population and their ancestors have worked for and paid for; they use the government services which the population pay for now; they need houses and flats built to accommodate them and roads and utilities expanded to meet the extra demand they create. They make most of the existing population relatively poorer, especially those at the lower end of the income scale, with whom they most compete. They benefit these at the top end of the income scale because they reduce labour costs.
There may well be other factors which should be considered when discussing the widening gap between rich and poor, but what is striking is the unwillingness of the new Socialists to address the issue of immigration at all. Jeremy Corbyn seems positively to welcome immigration. Are the new left-wing candidates genuinely concerned about the lot of the unemployed and badly-off who are being replaced in their own countries? Or are they proposing old remedies and finding old scapegoats – to draw popular attention away from the real issue which they and their friends do not wish to discuss?