It was the usual exercise in the unpredictable event followed by the tediously predictable response.
In her conference speech the Prime Minister announced she was taking on the level of non-British employees that are employed in the UK as part of her assault on the current levels of immigration. Her chosen method was a naming and shaming approach. All of that was unpredicted.
What was tediously predictable was the reaction from business groups. I won’t go into it here as we all know the words that were dutifully trotted out. The same words put out whenever any government criticizes or puts any pressure on business in any way.
Is the Prime Minister right or wrong to take this approach?
If the objective is to tackle levels of immigration that are perceived as too high (and we can all argue ‘til the cows come home whether that perception is correct), then it seems to make sense to tackle the demand aside of the equation as well as the supply side. Particularly since supply side management has, to date, been an abject failure.
Businesses seek solutions that they deem to be the most efficient. If the supply of skilled domestic workers is low, it is cheaper to hire ready trained foreign workers than to train local ones. As the demands of the workplace – and therefore the skills needed – change, it is also more efficient to get rid of older employees and replace them with new ones (wherever they might come from) rather than re-train them to be able to perform the new roles required. One cannot blame businesses for this behaviour. It is the most efficient approach and it is a bit of a stretch to describe it as immoral. It does, however, highlight the fact that in business today efficiency trumps all other considerations including any form of loyalty to country, community or individuals. It was not always so. But that was then and this is now.
The question is whether Mrs May’s chosen methods are appropriate. First of all, just like any other policy initiative, this one may or may not work. That remains to be seen. Secondly, one of its biggest dangers is that it will continue to fan the flames of xenophobia in this country by embedding in the public consciousness the idea that foreign = bad. Finally, would it have been more appropriate for the government to work in collaboration with business to find appropriate approaches rather than adopting the school-ma’am-ish approach that seems to be becoming Mrs May’s trademark? We can all argue about this last point. However, previous experience suggests that it is difficult to get business genuinely to collaborate on initiatives that are perceived to lower their efficiency or that require fundamental changes to how they operate. Previous attempts have resulted in business lobbies trying to water down and/or slow down any proposed changes or finding ways to game the system once it’s in place (eg bankers’ bonuses).
Maybe Mrs May has had enough of these games and has decided that the more muscular approach is the only viable way forward.
We shall see where all this goes. It may be implemented. If it is, it may or may not work. Or it may end up being kicked into the long grass. After all Mrs May has not yet been tested when faced by the might of corporate lobbying.