2014 01 – Editorial

Migrating to Britain.

The UK’s relationship with the EU is an odd one, full of contradictions and unintended consequences. At first the UK tried to undermine the EEC, as it then was, by setting up an alternative European free trade association, EFTA. When that didn’t work, it applied to join the EU. This was allowed to happen despite the wise reservations of de Gaulle, who saw what Britain was up to, namely using another diplomatic strategy to destroy Franco-German co-operation, the key European political relationship that Britain always feared and which still lies at the heart of European diplomacy.

Once in Europe, and with pro-Europeans like Edward Heath out of the way, the disruption strategy moved into full swing under Margaret Thatcher and then Tony Blair. We got the European free market with the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, allowing the free movement of capital and labour. Next came enlargement, particularly towards Eastern Europe, the thinking being that the Franco-German relationship would be disrupted by the accession of states hostile to Germany and friendly to the US. With this move Blair’s government had another great idea in 2004, why not bring forward the free movement of labour into Britain by eight years and give the indolent and inward looking working class of Britain a good shake-up? It seemed like a good idea at the time and the Tories raised no great objections. Two birds could be killed with one stone – disrupting the EU by opening up to the east and kicking the British working class into life through introducing migrant labour –  how clever!

Unfortunately however, the British working class was annoyed rather than shaken up. Inward migration also exposed some of the problems in British society. We have a lopsided education system that either prepares young people for university or for unskilled labour. As in all countries, but to a greater extent than elsewhere, the British will not do work that they consider demeaning or excessively low paid. The antagonistic relationships between capitalists and trade unions prevent firms being run even partially in workers’ interests and vocational education, already in bad shape, has declined still further over the last ten years. Not only did these problems make young British people unable to compete with better qualified young people from Europe, it also gave employers a free lunch of well-qualified young people whom they did not have to take the time and trouble on to take up jobs, whether or not they were skilled jobs and whom they could often pay on lower rates than those expected by British employees.

With only something like 20% of new jobs created in the years since 2004 going to the locals, it was hardly surprising that the role of migratory labour started to cause resentment among sections of the population. The response of the Tory Party has been odd and quite incoherent. A sizeable number of MPs castigate the education system for turning out lazy unmotivated young workers (see the LA review of ‘Britannia Unchained’, LA Feb 2013). Yet they object to any interference in employer prerogatives by obliging them to provide vocational education. They don’t see the connection that young people make between working at school and their likely job prospects.

They are happy to see colossal public subsidies going to supplement low-skill, low paid work through tax credits which discourage firms from investing in the know-how of their workers. And then they complain about the increasing role of migrant labour in the British economy, as if they never had any role to play in bringing it about. At least Nigel Farage of UKIP has the sense to see that it is self-contradictory to berate British workers as inadequate and object to diligent migrant labour. He refuses the self-serving tactic of blaming the lazy British worker for his woes, but has little idea beyond banning migrant labour for dealing with the underlying problem. However, the Tories are keeping remarkably quiet about the prospect of the Ukraine becoming an associate member of the EU, belatedly realising the possible domestic consequences of their policies to disrupt Europe.

One fact not much mentioned in the fuss about Romania and Bulgaria is that these countries do take vocational education seriously and that they may well add to the competition of well-qualified labour which is not too demanding of high wage rates, which young British workers are now facing. It is not all about unskilled workers coming to pick vegetables in Lincolnshire.

It is not an exaggeration to say that young people in Britain face a crisis, provoked by successive government policies and a failure of the trade unions to react to the growing problem of poor vocational education and high youth unemployment, which are really two sides of the same coin. The coalition abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance, destroyed Careers Education and imposed huge fees on young people going to university.

Those who don’t go to university face a number of challenges. These include: competition with well-qualified and motivated migrant labour; little or no quality vocational education; competition for non-graduate jobs with graduates and a general and pervasive shortage of well-paid and satisfying jobs. The graduates themselves will be faced with debts of around £50,000 per head when they qualify and will find it difficult to gain the previously taken-for-granted perks of middle class life, such as a mortgage. Many of them will be doing nothing more than taking jobs which don’t need degrees from people without degrees who can do those jobs perfectly well. There is likely to be massive middle-class anger when this sinks in and the state will probably have to write off a huge proportion of this debt to deflect a middle class protest movement. Watch out for the ambitious and demagogic politician who sees the coming opportunity to ingratiate himself with this growing constituency.

None of this will help the 53+% of young people in England and Wales who do not go to university. Only about 3% of these will do an apprenticeship which is in any way comparable to one in the German Dual System (which is used by 60% of 16-25 year olds in that country). A very small proportion of 16-18 year olds are in full-time employment. Too often, college-based courses cannot give young people the workplace experience that they need to compete in the labour market. The trade union movement has a huge opportunity to take up this issue, which is one of the big challenges to our future as a country which has any aspirations to a productive economy. It needs to make vocational education and training one of its key campaigning issues. But before it even does that it has to motivate more trade union executives to take a different attitude. This includes the leaders of some teaching trade unions who take a complacent attitude to the views of many of their members who seem to think that going to university ought to be the only option for young people and who cannot be bothered to think about whatever other opportunities there might be, let alone campaign for more of them. Government policies which encourage competition between schools and colleges to retain young people within the education system do not help either.

The Migrant Worker has become a convenient bogeyman to divert the political parties and the trade unions from challenging businesses to take a more responsible attitude to their future work force. They have been allowed to ignore the responsibility that they have for developing vocational education. They appear to be happy in practice with a low skill, low wage economic model that is nurtured through state aid, despite their rhetoric.

It is highly unlikely that the UK will leave the EU despite all the fuss and bother and there is virtually no chance that the UK will be able to prevent the free movement of labour into the country even if it left the EU, as this would also mean leaving the European free market economic zone. All the rhetoric about this is so much smoke and dust which diverts the public from the underlying issue of neglect of the upcoming generations of British workers.

In effect we have a situation which the élites in both political parties worked for without understanding the consequences for domestic policies. They are caught in a bind because they cannot conceive that it might be necessary to hold employers to their responsibilities and they can get away with this attitude because the trade union movement is letting them. It is always dangerous to predict that the British working and middle classes will get angry about what is being done to them, but the chances of some form of political anger about this neglect erupting into mainstream politics over the next few years should not be discounted. Whether it will be safely diverted into anti-EU and anti-migrant worker feeling is largely up to the trade unions and the TUC. The TUC in particular has shown some sign that it understands what is happening. It now needs to persuade its members and inject some backbone into the Labour Party.

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