The Conservatives are trying to draw a new dividing line in British politics: wages versus immigration. Boris Johnson used his speech at last week’s conference to position the Tories as the party of higher wages, promising a departure from the UK’s old economic model, which he claimed used “uncontrolled” immigration as “an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills and in the equipment or machinery they need to do their jobs”.
The logic is brutal but simple. Johnson is attempting to recast a supply chain crisis caused partly by shortages of HGV drivers and agricultural workers as temporary pain in the service of long-term gain. In this new telling, the shortages will wean the UK off low-skilled immigrant labour that once came via EU freedom of movement, thus fulfilling one of the key promises of Brexit.
By contrast, Johnson suggests, his Labour opponents are stuck in the past. Lighting on Keir Starmer’s recent suggestion that the government’s temporary visa scheme for HGV drivers should be expanded to 100,000 places, the Conservatives have formulated a new attack line. “Vote Tory to get a pay rise, vote Labour to see mass immigration drive your wages down,” as one government source recently put it.
Yet to frame the debate in this way gives the false impression that migration is something that can be turned on and off like a tap. For the Conservatives, this framing may well be convenient, but in the absence of a wider economic strategy, it is unlikely to provide any lasting solution to the problem of UK wages, which are largely flat since the global financial crisis of 2008. For Labour, it risks trapping the party in political territory where only the right’s arguments are likely to succeed.
Britain is currently discovering that immigration is as much a question of human relationships as it is of economic need. Over the past few weeks, lorry drivers from EU countries have been patiently explaining to journalists why they find the government’s new three-month visa scheme, intended to keep shelves stocked and petrol pumps full in the runup to Christmas, unattractive. “No thank you, Mr Prime Minister,” said Jakub Pajka, a Polish driver, to Reuters in Warsaw. “No drivers want to move for only three months just to make it easier for the British to organise their holidays.”
EU workers’ lack of enthusiasm for the new visa scheme – there are currently 5,000 places for HGV drivers, and another 5,500 for poultry workers – was greeted with a fair deal of surprise in the Westminster bubble, but it really shouldn’t have been. As Yva Alexandrova – an expert on migration policy and author of Here to Stay, a forthcoming book on the experiences of eastern European immigrants in the UK – told me: “It was quite insulting in a way. It’s like, we’ve kicked you out [but] now we need you for three months and then we’re going to kick you out again.”
In British debates about immigration, it is often assumed that people from less wealthy countries would jump at the chance to come to the UK, but this isn’t always the case. EU citizens, for instance, may prefer to look for work in member states where they enjoy greater rights – and beyond that, demographic changes mean that countries in central and eastern Europe that once provided a source of westward migration are themselves now looking for workers. (Romania, for instance, is facing its own shortage of fruit pickers.)
To some, this would suggest that migration policy needs to be carefully and sensitively planned. The government’s response, however, has been to display the same sink-or-swim attitude to the country at large that it shows to recipients of universal credit. Just as cutting £20 a week from people’s benefits is supposed to force them back into work – or, if they are in work, into higher paying jobs – the government is now telling us that this autumn’s disruption is a necessary step on the way to a higher-wage economy, no matter the misery it causes. Yet even on its own terms, the plan is unlikely to work.
Lower immigration does not automatically result in higher wages, any more than growth and productivity can be raised without a serious plan for investment in education and skills. Johnson’s government has a poor track record in understanding these issues. It has largely been forgotten in the wake of the pandemic, but when the issue of labour shortages previously dominated the news, in February 2020, home secretary Priti Patel attracted derision for claiming that the UK’s 8.5 million “economically inactive” people could fill staff shortages – even though many of them are students, carers, sick or retired.
The UK’s post-Brexit immigration system has been sold to us as one in which the country can cherrypick the world’s “brightest and best” (a euphemism for the rich and highly educated), and dispense with the services of the less affluent. In reality, immigration will continue to play a significant role in sustaining those occupations deemed “low-skilled”, but which in fact are essential to the functioning of the country. Through political choice, as the past few weeks have shown, this will be done in a haphazard way, and under conditions – such as visas that tie workers to a particular employer – that make it more likely people will be exploited.
Already, a seasonal visa scheme for agricultural workers has been expanded from 2,500 places in 2019 to 30,000 this year, mostly recruiting people from Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Moldova and elsewhere. A report published in March this year by the charity Focus on Labour Exploitation warns that the scheme carries risks of human trafficking and forced labour. The petty cruelty of the UK’s immigration system – making it hard for many immigrants to access healthcare or benefits – further limits the options of people at risk.
Regardless, Johnson’s new stance is a potentially powerful campaigning tool. With some senior Tories reportedly tiring of the right’s “war on woke”, the promise of higher wages as a reward for Brexit may be an effective way to hold together the coalition of voters the Conservatives were able to rally in 2019.
If Labour wants to escape the trap laid for it, then it needs to come up with a response that rejects playing different groups of workers off against one another. It has recently endorsed sectoral collective bargaining – industry-wide agreements between trade unions and employers which are used in countries such as the Netherlands to set minimum standards on pay and conditions. A policy like this has a genuine chance of improving things for workers, but it needs to be part of a wider conversation about power: what would give people genuine control over their working lives, no matter their immigration status?