There’s been a lot of hot air over the past week about what the government and Labour are calling Britain’s “dependency” on migrant labour. But if there is a dependency, it’s one of their own making. Chronic underinvestment in training and skills, lags in technological advancements, declining apprenticeships along with poor pay and working conditions mean that employers have had little incentive to invest in a British workforce. The result is there are many jobs that Brits are unwilling or unable to do, and migrants have long been filling the gaps.
The bedrock of the UK’s liberal market economy is labour flexibility, and successive governments have relied on migrant workers to provide this: New Labour created it and the Conservatives have happily fed off it since.
What can be done about this? Both Labour and the Conservatives are saying that businesses need to look elsewhere for their workers. For Starmer, it’s about shedding the New Labour pro-business persona by expecting businesses to provide training and writing trade unions back into the playbook of future negotiations. The leader seems to have wrong-footed the left of his party that is suspicious of Starmer nailing his colours to the mast of trade unionism.
For the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, it’s as simple as getting the economically inactive back to work. There’s no real plan of how to do this but it’s a pleasingly simplistic idea that sledgehammers both of the Tories pet hates – benefit claimants and migrants.
Immigration is a headache for the Conservatives. Caught between a neoliberal new right position that champions free markets and social conservatism, for which immigration is a threat, the Tories will never be able to knit a coherent strategy together. And this infighting, always present but now overt, is playing out front and centre in the party (even in the cabinet) between those that see immigration as an economic good, and those that see it as a social threat. When she was prime minister, the neoliberal Britannia Unchained proponent Liz Truss wanted to see some increases in economic immigration, while her home secretary, Suella Braverman, was incredulous at the prospect. Sunak meanwhile is full of indecision, struggling to keep his party together; a rabbit in headlights.
The hysteria around immigration has been all the more marked in the last few days because of record net migration numbers. Conservatives and Labour’s instinct seems to be to shout even louder about reducing it. But this could be an poor political calculation for both parties: recent research by the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank suggests the British public are less bothered by immigration and more positive about increasing it. Its breakdown hints that most of this change in opinion can be attributed to the Covid bounce, and the schemes that have facilitated the arrival of Ukrainians and citizens of Hong Kong, which the public broadly supports.
The sticking point that is emblematic of the Tory split on immigration is international students, who account for a large proportion of that net increase in migration. Predictably, Sunak’s response was to dog-whistle by suggesting a clampdown on the number sof international students. International students have been a thorn in the side of the Conservatives ever since David Cameron’s infamous, failed pledge to reduce net migration to tens of thousands. But the higher education sector is reliant on international student fees and the Tories know it. Cue prominent backbenchers decrying Sunak’s suggestions as “mindless”. It is the gulf in conservative thinking between headlines and practicality.
In the past decade, populism has trumped economic demands when it comes to immigration. The Tories are failing to extract any more growth from a stagnant economy, posing this political calculation: will their voters, who have traditionally been opposed to increases in immigration, swallow their social distaste in the name of economic growth. The Conservatives traditionally win on both economy and immigration, but now one threatens the other. Tories are being summoned: which issue, and which constituency, matters more?