IT was a strange sentence in the middle of a relatively unremarkable Jeremy Corbyn speech.
“Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle, but I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out.”
Loading article content
Was Jezza finally signing up to the great Tory lie that European freedom of movement has created an intolerable wave of immigration forcing Brits out of jobs, driving down wages, putting pressure on services and generally causing chaos? Was the veteran leftie selling out his long-held commitment to open borders in Europe in the face of opinion poll predictions of electoral meltdown at the forthcoming local elections? Or not?
What the heck.
In an instant, the Labour leader looked weak, sounded shifty and confirmed that it’s now Nicola Sturgeon who is most strongly identified with an outward-looking, cooperative vision of Britain in Europe and it’s the SNP not Labour that’s now the largest UK party supporting single market membership – since membership unquestionably means freedom of movement. Nice one Jeremy.
The Cambridgeshire crowd gathered to hear this “reboot” speech was reeling from the prospect of Labour backing Tory anti-immigration rhetoric when Corbyn threw another curve ball. With everyone expecting an all-out attack on the funding crisis in the English NHS, Jezza instead announced plans for a maximum wage – catching the media and the rest of the shadow cabinet on the hop. The press jumped on it and within hours the Sun had branded Corbyn’s new year relaunch “a day of chaos after … Labour MPs were left in despair by their hapless leader’s major U-turn on border controls and a half-cocked clamp down on mega-rich pay.”
Now I’m not here to try and defend Jeremy Corbyn. But there is a link between pay and immigration – though Labour isn’t making it very well – and there is a bucket-load of hypocrisy in the way Brexit-supporting tabloids expose non sequiturs, policy U-turns and downright nonsense uttered in the name of Brexit. Let’s face it. The Tory Government are still masters of the game.
A few hours after Corbyn’s rather surprising speech was splashed all over English tabloids, there was a rather astonishing performance in the House of Lords by the misnamed Home Office minister Robert Goodwill.
He told a House of Lords subcommittee on immigration policy that Theresa May is seriously thinking of imposing a £1,000-a-year levy on every European Union skilled worker recruited by British employers after Brexit to deter immigration and thus “be helpful to British workers who feel they are overlooked.” I’d say that’s a straight £4k levy on every other GP recruited to the NHS – worldwide there’s a shortage of 70 thousand doctors so the NHS is bound to need migrants to cope. That Brexit surcharge will fairly help the hospital funding crisis down south. Not.
But Goodwill went on to blatantly contradict this hardball stance on migrating doctors to appease Tory voters in the shires. It seems low-skilled, seasonal agricultural workers will be able to keep coming to the UK post-Brexit without too much restriction or a £1k surcharge, because the government’s target will not include folk who work here for less than six months. Brilliant. Now this is just bowing in the face of the inevitable. The UK horticultural industry alone will need an estimated 90,000 seasonal workers by 2019, with 95 per cent of British-grown berries picked by workers from other EU countries.
But consistent? Fair? Brexit means Brexity? Not a bit of it.
Lordy, lordy. An opt out for Nissan, an (imminent) opt out for Northern Ireland and an opt out for the big Tory-voting farming shires of eastern England. Whatever next – an opt out for Scotland? Not on your nelly.
Dundee MP Chris Law kicked off yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions asking if Theresa May had read the Scottish Government’s Brexit options paper. The PM didn’t even bother to respond (that’ll be a no then) but fell back instead on the weariest, emptiest and most fraudulent claim in the hoary old Project Fear war-chest – that it’s the SNP who are hellbent on taking Scots out of Europe because they want to take Scotland out of the Union.
Purlease. Frankie Howerd has more up-to-date lines and sadly he’s no longer with us.
But there is an important point at the heart of all this and Jeremy Corbyn had his finger on it – for a minute.
Britain’s low-wage, long-hours, casualised, zero-hours, precarious and pressurised economy prompts anyone with skills to leave for a better working environment and a more civilised way of life practically anywhere else in the developed world. Part of the reason the British NHS needs to import so many doctors is that our own recruits take one look at the under-paid, over-stressed nightmare that is the NHS and immediately start checking longhaul flight prices for Oz, Canada and New Zealand. I remember speaking to trainee nurses a couple of years back and not a single one – youngsters or mature students – planned to use their skills in Scotland or the UK. Now that is a massive problem. But tackling it through the warped prism of immigration just muddies the waters.
By contrast, I was talking to a friend who moved to Norway for a two-year contract in 1993. He never came back. When I asked why, he explained that anyone casually employed by the same company for more than three years must be made a full-time employee with all the generous rights and allowances that brings. It seems the law was brought in to stop casualisation of the Norwegian workforce and to deter employers from trying to get around new maternity and paternity allowances. And yes, I did check. After five changes of administration and despite a Conservative government now, that law has not been changed.
Can anyone imagine how working lives here would be improved by such a measure? Of course, it would need leadership higher up the food chain to ensure that small companies aren’t in exactly the same tenuous position themselves – forced to tender at below cost just to keep folk employed and order books full.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world and the Scottish Government has not yet figured out how to escape it.
Their living wage campaign is a start. Scottish Canals has just become the 700th Scottish-based accredited employer to pay all staff the new Real Living Wage rate of £8.45 an hour.
But Scotland could be doing something much, much more ambitious – trialling a citizen’s income.
Last year The National reported that Fife could be the first part of the British Isles to run a universal basic income (UBI) pilot. Councillors, Scottish Government civil servants and members of the Scottish Basic Income Network suggest using Holyrood’s new welfare powers to pilot a citizen’s income where welfare benefits such as child and tax credits and state pensions are replaced with an unconditional flat-rate payment that’s paid out whether the recipient is in work or not. It’s a really great idea – let’s get on with it.
The UBI or citizen’s income meets the combined challenge of automation, mechanisation and digitalisation, all of which mean folk will find themselves jobless in the very near future – whether they are skilled, keen and thoroughly British or not.
Such a scheme – redistributing cash across those with and without jobs – may be the only way to counter Scotland’s ever-increasing income gap A UBI pilot is currently running in Holland, and Finland is to launch a citizen’s income scheme next year. Wouldn’t it be great if Scotland was in the vanguard of this – not bringing up the rear?
So never mind sniggering at the U-turning Jeremy Corbyn or the duplicitous Mr Goodwill.
What about Nicola Sturgeon making Scotland the first nation in the world to pilot and adopt a citizen’s income?
It would make a huge impact in the next independence campaign and it can be done.
Titter ye not.