If ‘British jobs 4 British workers’ is back, can ‘Back to basics’ be far behind?
There’s a cycle to political life. And nowhere is that clearer in the pronouncements of politicians wedded to a neoliberal, free market ideology. Sooner or later, Ministers who have become used to the trappings of power, ministerial cars, grace and favour properties and speeches written to order begin to think that the word is the deed, and they have merely to say, like Captain Picard, “make it so.”
King Canute, of course, was trying to dispel precisely this mindset by ordering the waves to retreat (and look how history treated him!) But contemporary politicians show no such appreciation of irony. So, yesterday, along came employment and skills minister Matthew Hancock, exhorting British employers to provide British jobs for British workers. I suspect someone is already dusting off “back to basics” as a speech theme for the summer or for the party conference season, entirely unconcerned about how such claims regularly backfire.
Governments can make things happen, but to really make a difference to what is happening in the economy or society, they need something more powerful than words. Regulation, perhaps, expenditure, certainly, and behavioural taxation, too. But that would mean interfering in the free market, and the characteristic of the “make it so” school of government is that the free market is sacrosanct.
There is a nub of sense in what Matthew Hancock was saying (but I’m too squeamish to put that ‘above the line’ on Touchstone.) It is certainly the case that immigration is too often used as a substitute for employer expenditure on training or higher wages, and that is not good for existing or indeed migrant workers.
The Resident Labour Market Test requires employers to advertise jobs locally aty the going rate before they can offer a job to someone from outside the EU, and it is a sensible measure to prevent unemployment and undercutting. If Matthew Hancock was suggesting extending the Test to cover training provision, unions would be interested.
However, our experience – under successive governments – is of defending the Test against attempts to weaken it, ‘to liberalise the labour market’, by lowering the required wage, or the length of time a job can be advertised, or the extent of publicity required.
As it is, the minister is left with exhortation as his only weapon, and my guess is that it won’t work in terms of its stated objectives. However, ‘British jobs for British workers’ isn’t just about the labour market, is it? It’s a dog whistle tactic, designed to demonise foreign workers and shore up the xenophobic (or just xeno-worried) vote. And that’s not sensible labour market politics at all, it’s just distasteful.