“British Jobs for British Workers”
When Gordon Brown first said this nearly two years ago, I felt distinctly uneasy.
I know when he said it he meant that he wanted to see every British citizen equipped with the skills they needed to get ahead, but I thought then that it would be taken to mean something else. And, anyway, it was an ugly phrase.
Now it’s come back to haunt him.
Over the weekend the Prime Minister said that the wild cat strikes of last week were “indefensible”. Really?
I think the economic circumstances made it pretty likely there was going to be this sort of anger and disruption. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened again.
I don’t think we can just dismiss these concerns out of hand. A lot of people share the perception that jobs they want and need are going to foreign workers. There is no denying this. It is not ‘indefensible’ for them to be concerned.
The Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet need to address this. They could start by making a strong argument to people out there why the free movement of labour and an outward-forward looking approach to immigration has served this country so well and will continue to do so.
If Brown really wanted to, he could talk of the dangers of protectionism and make the case again why globalisation (not unfettered or unchecked) is best placed to serve this country.
The politicians, academics, bankers and economists at Davos have been doing this all week, but have any of them made this case to their own domestic populations? At Davos, you are preaching to the converted.
What Brown really needs to do is go into the country on the front foot and explain the situation. The fact is that now that Britain’s economy is faltering, many immigrants who came here from Eastern Europe are returning from whence they came. And what if other countries adopted similar stances? Would the 2.4million Brits living in the rest of Europe suddenly find themselves kicked out because the Italians wanted Italian jobs for Italian workers?
By the same token, I would also find out why it is that companies like Total feel the need to bring in workers from Portugal and Spain and do not use local workers. Is there a reason for this? Has it been explained? Is it because of the local skills base and if so, what can the government do to change this?
The government mustn’t pander to prejudice – because undoubtedly some of this is – but it should also recognise that many people perceive a fundamental unfairness in the balance of work between local citizens and foreign workers.
While I think Frank Field’s suggestion that the government should legislate so companies only use British workers in the first instance, is a step too far, I do think he is right to point out that the government could be doing more to address people’s concerns.
I am still thinking about how you do that (and I am sorry I don’t have the answers yet) but as the economy get worse, this situation is likely to increase.
The Prime Minister should take last week’s strike actions as an early warning.