We now have a glimpse into the hard Tory vision of how a fully Brexited Britain will treat Europeans who want to work here. All during the 20th century after 1945, Britain had to import workers to do the jobs the sturdy white Englishman didn’t want to do.
200,000 Polish ex-soldiers after 1945 were sent down coal mines. Anti-European Yorkshire coalminers refused to work with the Poles who had their own shifts and had to open their own working men’s clubs. Windrush Afro-Caribbeans who arrived soon after to do essential public service work the white Englishman wasn’t available for. Immigrants from the former Indian empire shaping today ‘s 3 million strong Muslim community . More than a million Irish citizens came under the freedom of movement arrangements between London and Dublin. Cypriots who transformed the restaurant offer in London after 1960. They were all rejected to begin with. “No Coloured, No Irish, Dogs Welcome” could be seen on boarding houses in the 1950s.
In the 1960s and 1970s Enoch Powell tried to fuse anti-immigration hate into a political project. But he was repudiated by the political and media establishment. Today’s Britain has more second-generation immigrants starring in major roles in public life, business, the media and the creative sector than any other European country.
More recently, the anti-immigrant story has flared into life again. All the Powellite language was used to denounce incomers from Europe culminating in the notorious Leave poster showing Britain invaded by a snaking queue of Levantine refugee-immigrants.
Now the right-wing Policy Exchange think-tank has come up with some deeply unpleasant suggestions that Europeans doing the low-pay, anti-social work the true born Brit shuns should be branded with biometric identification, finger-printed, and not allowed to have the same income as fellow British workers doing the same job, then booted out after two years.
This will require a giant new bureaucracy to administer measures which seem at odds with British traditions of tolerance and welcome. If implemented they will produce reciprocal measures against young British citizens who want to live and work in European countries often doing low-pay jobs to earn a living.
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It is one of the oddest aspects of the Brexit saga since June 2016 that no-one on the left – Labour MPs, trade unions, ‘progressive’ think-tanks – has developed a policy matrix that first controls freedom of movement without breaking EU law, second increases jobs for British workers, third develops workplace rights to control hiring.
Elsewhere in the EU freedom of movement was hemmed in with restrictions. It does not apply to state or public sector employment even if the biggest employer of EU citizens in the UK is the NHS. It is based on work, not living off benefits. It allows tough registration rules. It requires that health, unemployment and old-age care insurance is taken out. There is even an emergency brake provision if a sudden wave of immigration overwhelms public order or social infrastructure.
Key EU laws now just strengthened insist that workers sent (‘posted’) by their employer from one country to another must be paid the rate of the job locally. Employment agencies were set up to offer cut-rate agency workers so the EU mandated that they should be given staff employment after a given period. Working time rules were brought in to stop a return to 60- and 70-hour weeks. The European Court of Justice has said Uber drivers are employees and must be treated as such.
Sadly, both Labour and then the Con-LibDem government opposed most of these measures, or delayed their application. Gordon Brown, under the baleful influence of Treasury neo-liberal ideologues, instructed Labour MEPs and party representatives drawing up European election manifestos to oppose core social justice measures.
The concern over the volume and velocity of arrivals of new workers from Europe was real. It could have been dealt with by re-thinking the way the UK’s internal labour market failed to train local citizens and tilted the balance towards often unscrupulous exploitative bosses.
Both Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem ministers share the responsibility for the abolition of effective craft apprenticeship training. This led to the arrival of Irish and continental Europeans who were properly trained as electricians, plumbers, carpenters – trades Britain stopped training for in the Thatcher years.
Is it too late for the Labour Party under today’s leadership to work with the TUC and European labour market thinkers in drawing up proposals that better control movement of workers without fantasising about an officious new bureaucracy to control Europeans working amongst us?
For Labour MPs a re-design of the UK labour market might be seen as worthwhile in political terms in order to reconnect to workers. It is a better response than the current Labour fatalism on Brexit of hoping to trip up the Government now and then in the Commons or Lords but without any alternative project to support British workers and keep job-creating investment flowing into the British economy. The alternative on offer from the right – to treat European workers as second-class helots – should be rejected with contempt.
About Denis MacShane
Denis MacShane is a former Minister of Europe and author of Brexit: Why Britain Left Europe published by IB Tauris.