Jeremy Corbyn is being criticized for claiming that immigration cuts wages. I suspect his critics are right, if not quite for the reasons some of them might think.

Corbyn said he wanted to

prevent] employers being able to import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions in the name of free market orthodoxy.

One can read this not as a call for immigration controls but for restrictions on employment agencies.

Such a reading, however, doesn’t exonerate Corbyn.

For one thing, social pressure and market forces have already reined in bad agencies. Transline – the supplier of labour to Amazon and Sports Direct memorably described by James Bloodworth in Hired – lost those contracts and went into administration last year.

And for another, he must have known that statement would be read as a claim about immigration.

And it’s here that he’s wrong.

It is the case that immigration does reduce the wages of some unskilled workers. But the effect is puny. As Jonathan Portes has said:

Immigration may have some, small, negative impact on wages for some low-paid workers.  But the idea that immigration is the main or even a moderately important driver of low pay is simply not supported by the available evidence.

And this small downwards pressure on the lower end of wages is offset by upward effects upon higher wages. Net, immigration is not bad for the economy.

Now, Corbyn’s centrist critics will stop here. But they shouldn’t. It’s here that my complaint with him begins.

In one sense, politicians are like generals; one of their great skills is to choose the terrain on which to fight their battles. And in these words, Corbyn is shifting the battle to the wrong field. He is, in Gramsci’s words, taking a wrong move in the war of position.

What he should be doing is to argue that wages are being depressed not by immigration but by fiscal austerity and by dysfunctional capitalism: stagnant productivity; financialization (pdf), power-biased technical change; deunionization and so on*.

Even the slightest talk of immigration shifts the agenda against this. It moves the political battle onto the terrain that capitalists and Tories want it to be on. They want to distract us from the failures and injustices of austerity and (neoliberal?) capitalism by scapegoating immigrants.

The more we talk about immigration, the less we talk about capitalism. Labour cannot win a battle on this terrain. Once you concede that immigration depresses wages, you are allowing the right to offer tougher and more credible policies to combat it than you can. And you are distracting people from the real reasons why wages are low - reasons that Labour has some policies to combat.

Labour’s attitude to immigration should be much the same as its attitude to government borrowing: it should be silent about it because it doesn’t matter. In fairness to Corbyn, one of his great achievements in last year’s general election was to do just this.  

The right, of course, already has a massive advantage in choosing the terrain; the right-wing press sets the agenda and the BBC follows. Labour therefore needs to be very careful not to add to this advantage. In this sense, Corbyn has failed.

* I’m not saying Corbyn should use these exact words. Another of the great skills of a successful politician is to translate technical economic language into words that resonate more with people.