Johnson has hit on the idea of posing as the friend of workers and the champion of higher wages.
For weeks ministers have been insisting that shortages had nothing to do with Brexit, but now Johnson claims that it was all part of the Brexit “plan” to push higher pay by restricting the supply of labour: he claims his government wants to make Britain a high-wage economy by ending supposedly “uncontrolled” immigration. .
With typical opportunism, Johnson has seized upon a few limited and short-term wage rises to suggest that Brexit and tighter immigration controls benefit British workers.
It is also an argument that some on the left have used.
In 2011, the No2EU campaign (backed by the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and the RMT rail union) published an article by Alex Gordon, then the RMT’s president, calling for tougher immigration controls: “All nation states must have democratic control over their own immigration policy and have the right to apply national legislation in defence of migrant and indigenous workers.”
In 2013 the late Bob Crow, then RMT general secretary, declared that “free movement within the EU impoverishes workers.”
In the closing days of the 2016 EU referendum, Unite’s Len McCluskey said: “Let us be clear — what has been done in the last ten years is a gigantic experiment at the expense of ordinary workers. Countries with vast historical differences in wage rates and living standards have been brought together in a common labour market. The result has been huge downward pressure on living standards.”
Note that all these left advocates of the idea that immigration drives down wages are also supporters of Brexit — though McCluskey only revealed his true colours on that after the referendum. They are also all people closely associated with, and promoted by, the Morning Star.
Morning Star editorials repeatedly state as a matter of fact, that “foreign” (sometimes, strangely, “imported”) labour drives down wages and living standards — most recently on 6 October, in response to Johnson’s conference speech: “The public should not be subsidising low wages, he says. True, and Johnson tries to make a virtue of higher pay rates being offered in certain sectors... unions like Unite are right to point to corporate underinvestment and endemic low pay as the causes of these shortages, rather than harping on about Brexit and making a virtue out of the very reliance on super-exploited imported labour that has led to this crisis, as the Labour Party leadership still does.”
It is true that wages are rising for a relatively small number of people in sectors like HGV driving and food processing that previously relied heavily on EU workers. But shortages in a few industries do not boost wages overall and could even end up depressing overall real wages by fuelling inflation.
The Retail Price Index is presently 4.8 per cent, so workers need a 5 per cent rise just to stand still. According to the Financial Times (5 October) typical pay settlements are running at around 2 to 3 per cent in the private sector, and less in the public sector.
It is also the case (conveniently ignored by Johnson and his co-thinkers on the Brexiteer “left”) that France, Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland all have a smaller proportion of their workforce on low wages than the UK. Germany and Ireland have a bigger foreign-born population than the UK.
Studies over many years have concluded that the impact of immigration on wages is negligible, although it may have a very slight impact on some low-paid workers. To quote the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in January 2016, “the idea that immigration is the main or even a moderately important driver of low pay is simply not supported by the available evidence.”
One newspaper columnist dares tell the truth: “Want to improve wages? Don’t scapegoat immigrants. Don’t create shortages. Rebuild our unions.” Sadly, that is not from the Morning Star, but Kenan Malik in the Observer.