Why Labour should hold its nerve on its apprentices for immigrants plan

The policy will help drive a sustainable, jobs-rich, wage-enhancing recovery and convince the public that Labour is listening to its concerns about immigration.

At one stage, Ed Miliband was considering devoting a section of his big speech today to immigration. In the end, however, it was decided that this would divert from the focus on the economy and living standards. So the announcement made at the weekend that Labour will require big businesses which bring in a skilled worker from outside the EU to also take on a new apprentice is all the new policy on immigration we are going to get at this conference.

Of course the idea has taken a battering from the business lobby.  The British Chambers of Commerce, the CBI and the Institute of Directors have all weighed in to criticise the move as anti-business. 

It’s a charge to which Labour is – rightly – acutely sensitive. But despite the furore in some quarters, the leadership should hold its nerve on this policy. John Longworth, director general of the BCC, claims the scheme will neither control immigration nor help young people into jobs, but the opposite is true. It is a relatively small-scale initiative, but it is just the sort of balanced policy which Labour needs to help drive a sustainable, jobs-rich, wage-enhancing recovery and to convince the public that it is listening to its concerns about immigration.  

For although a recent poll by YouGov suggests those concerns are hardening, IPPR research to be published shortly shows that public attitudes on the nexus between migration and the needs of the economy can be relatively nuanced and mature. People do understand, even if they don’t much like, the fact that British businesses will sometimes have to look overseas for labour, particularly for specialist high skills, where these are not available among the existing domestic workforce. Measures to control overall immigration numbers that prevent such recruitment are clearly damaging to British competitiveness and the public get that.

At the same time, however, people feel very strongly that this approach to dealing with skills shortages should be a matter of short term remedy and not long term dependency. If our economy is going to need workers with certain skills for years to come and we don’t have those skills now we should be training up the domestic workforce. This view is nothing new. Indeed it has long been part of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC)’s remit to advise the government not just on what types of non-EU labour should qualify for entry because of domestic skills shortages, but also to liaise with sector skills councils so that in the longer term the UK fills these gaps through skilling up at home.  

All the new Labour proposal does, therefore, is to make more explicit the link between allowing overseas skilled workers entry in the short term and training up the domestic workforce in the long term. It also of course puts more direct responsibility on big businesses to assist in this process - but at a time when the need for business and government to work together to increase apprenticeships is widely recognised this is not an unreasonable requirement either.

As a side bar to the argument with business, there has been a rather diversionary political spat over whether the new apprenticeships created would actually go to British workers.  It is of course the case that apprenticeships in the UK are open to EU and EEA nationals – and in its initial briefing of the policy announcement Labour should have made that clearer. But the Labour Force Survey shows that in the year to June 2013, 92 per cent of apprenticeships were filled by British nationals. So the idea that Labour’s plan would mainly benefit EU migrants is not born out by the evidence. Indeed it may well turn out that the Tory attack was hasty and the Conservatives will find themselves having to match this pledge.

On the wider point, Labour also needs to ride out the initial attacks from predictable quarters and stick with a policy which will surely win public approval. As discussion around the detail continues it may be that Labour should look to see how some of the bureaucratic demands put on business through the operation of Tier 2 (highly skilled) of the visa system can be reduced. But it should do so on the understanding that the basic idea of businesses, alongside government, investing long term in training up domestic workers to fill skills shortages is a sound one.

Home Secretary Yvette Cooper speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tim Finch is director of communications for IPPR

Getty
Show Hide image

Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496