Not everyone who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum hates foreigners. But surveys indicate that a majority of Britons—61 percent according to one poll—think that there should be a cap on immigration to the UK and that the number of foreigners presently living there is too high. Seventy-five percent of Tory voters believe this, as do 81 percent of Leave-voters.
But those hoping to enjoy a post-Brexit immigration decline will be disappointed. The nature of the economy favours cheap and flexible labour, not British-born workers. So, instead of opposing immigrants, we should show solidarity and challenge the system which is rigged against all working people, regardless their nationality.
Skills shortages and a tight wallet
The Tory government bolsters and expands the very neoliberal economic ideology that benefits from cheap, exploitable labour. The same party enabling this system will not suddenly curb immigration just because of Brexit. Consider the UK’s skills shortage.
Nearly three million people work in the UK’s construction industry. With nearly a quarter close to retiring age and a gap in professional management, the industry is facing a shortage. Likewise, the digital economy faces shortages. In 2018, there were around 600,000 digital technology job vacancies, which cost the UK an estimated £63bn. The consultancy firm McKinsey estimates that within a decade the UK’s demand for managers, tech specialists, and health professionals is estimated to rise by nearly 20 percent. A third of the current total workforce (10 million people) needs to be re-skilled to meet the demands.
Funding programmes to train British workers does not fit the Tories’ neoliberal economic model. It appears that the government’s pledge to skill-up 18,000 construction workers with £17.8m will still leave 150,500 vacancies. Likewise, the government has announced just £5.75m in the form of charity bids to train the UK’s digital workforce. At the same time, the Johnson administration has just announced plans to fast-track “unlimited visa offers” for highly-skilled scientists from non-EU countries. The £300m is not going to train British apprentices but rather into R&D for advanced mathematics. But advanced maths is currently developing the bourgeoning financial technologies sector (“fintech”), which could lead to more financial crises. Such crises will hurt the very voters who back the Tories on the basis of their alleged anti-immigration policies.
The reality of the market
In 2018, the Financial Times reported that several big companies were “complain[ing] about rising labour costs.” The same article notes “chronic” labour shortages in hospitality, IT, construction, health/social work, leisure, and business services. One way to fill a skills shortage and depress wages is to hire more immigrant workers, not British-born workers.
Consider the neoliberal Tory government’s solutions to low-skilled labour shortages. Instead of raising wages and arranging transport and accommodation to attract British workers, then-Environment Secretary and avid Brexiteer, Michael Gove, implied that robots and Ukrainian (i.e., non-EU) seasonal workers, not Brits, could replace EU migrant fruit pickers after Brexit. Then-Justice Secretary, David Gauke, who was considered by mainstream media to be a “moderate”, said that captive labourers in the form of prisoners could work in “catering, construction and agriculture.”
How is the use of robots, non-EU labourers, and prisoners going to help working-class British people? And why should anyone attack immigrants for the policies of big business and government that seek minimise labour costs and tighten the public purse strings?
Posture vs pragmatism
Boris Johnson’s government is hoping to win over right-wing voters by introducing an “Australian-style points based system” for immigration. Meanwhile, Home Secretary Priti Patel hints that working-class Brits will benefit from fewer, “cheap” EU labourers, who she implies were taking their jobs. But the cracks are already showing in the government’s posturing, with the Migration Advisory Committee rejecting elements of the plan. Commenting on the Tier 2 tradable points scheme already in place, the report says: “We do not recommend changes to this framework.”
This followed a plea by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which represents multimillion pound companies, not to make life hard for business by restricting access to flexible immigrant labour. The CBI wrote to Patel expressing relief that the anti-immigration rhetoric is different from the reality. The letter also commended dropping the arbitrary immigration reduction target and welcomed signs “that the £30,000 minimum salary test” could be reduced. The government’s moves sent “signals around the world that the UK is open for business.”
Anti-immigrant voters were hoping that Brexit would scare off EU nationals and reduce overall numbers of foreigners living in the UK. But since the result of the referendum, non-EU immigrants have taken their place. The Office for National Statistics says that three years after the referendum and in spite of a Tory government committed to a “hostile environment,” “net migration, immigration and emigration figures have remained broadly stable overall.” As immigration from EU countries declined, immigration from non-EU countries increased to “the highest [levels] since 2004.”
The truth about the “Australian-style system”
Putting aside the fact that one of its first immigrant populations were the white colonial settlers, Australia has an international reputation for being tough on immigrants. Boris Johnson pleases many right-wing voters by insisting that the UK will adopted an Australian-style points-based system. But again the reality is different from the rhetoric. Much in the way that Britain’s “hostile environment” has not led to an overall immigration decline, Australia’s points-based system has actually increased its immigration levels. But don’t tell right-wing voters…
Australia has five visa subclasses, not just one or two. In recent years, immigration has reached record high levels, with one new person per minute on average, mostly from China and India, arriving to live and work in Australia. A couple of years ago, Australia’s Multicultural Affairs Minister, Alan Tudge, said: “We are having a higher than ever number of people who are not speaking the English language and that’s often overlaid with a high concentration of the overseas born.” In addition to the points-based system for entry being less harsh than perhaps many imagine, Oxford University’s Migration Observatory notes that “There is some flexibility about how applicants meet the criteria – so a person who has less of one sought-after quality (e.g. skilled work experience) can make up for it if they have more of another (e.g. language proficiency).”
Finishing Thatcher’s revolution
In spite of left-wing Brexit (or “Lexit”) fantasies, leaving the EU in the manner in which Britain appears to be doing was always a right-wing project pushed by millionaires and billionaires in financial services industries, like the hedge fund manager Arron Banks and the asset management investor and politician, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Indeed, ex-Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, wrote that Brexit gives the Tories the chance to “finish the Thatcher revolution.”
Working-class voters who backed Brexit and the Tories because they fear greater immigration will probably soon realise that the Thatcherite system for which they voted is actually one that disenfranchises them and exploits migrant workers. Let’s show more solidarity and see where the real problem lies.