RUTH SUNDERLAND: The Prime Minister is absolutely right that we should aspire to be a highly paid, highly skilled, highly productive economy – the question is how we get there?
In this strange, pandemic-blighted world, it is not Labour but the Conservatives who have been depicting business as merciless exploiters of cheap labour on a scale that would have a Victorian mill-owner twirling his moustache in envy.
The criticism is crude and partial but has some force because it contains an element of truth.
Road haulage and several other key industries, including engineering and construction, have ageing workforces and have depended far too heavily for years on low-cost labour from overseas.
Vision: Boris Johnson is right that we should aspire to be a highly paid, highly skilled, highly productive economy
Everyone has known since the Brexit vote in 2016 that the ready supply of labour from the EU was likely to dwindle, so companies must bear a share of responsibility for failing to tackle the problem.
But the anti-business rhetoric does a dis-service to many firms. To give just a couple of examples, JCB in Staffordshire and fashion manufacturer David Nieper in Derbyshire have gone to great lengths to train apprentices and nurture skills in their local areas. There are many more like them.
Firms were aware Brexit would bring curbs on the supply of immigrant labour, but it was not immediately clear to what extent this would be the case.
Nor could business leaders have predicted how the coronavirus crisis would exacerbate labour shortages. Fomenting anti-business sentiment and encouraging workers in a sense of entitlement, at a time when many seem to think WFH is a human right, is a dangerous route for the Tories.
It risks alienating natural Conservative supporters, including entrepreneurs and donors who are already angry at the impending rise in Corporation Tax and National Insurance.
Exploitative employers exist, of course. Yet plenty are at the other end of the spectrum and are bending over backwards to appear woke and to accommodate staff in their various post-lockdown demands.
Rather than business-bashing, the Conservatives need a positive roadmap for the economy and for growth.
Boris’s predecessors, whether one agreed with them or not, did have a vision and a plan, with some intellectual underpinning.
Mrs Thatcher’s thinking was influenced by economists Friedrich von Hayek and Adam Smith. Her economic adviser, Sir Alan Walters, held such great sway it put him on a collision course with Chancellor Nigel Lawson. In the New Labour era, Gordon Brown’s views were informed by Harvard economists such as Larry Summers.
What about Boris? There appears to be a vacancy for the post of economic guru to the PM. Perhaps Andy Haldane, the former Bank of England chief economist who is now to lead the levelling up task force, will fill it but, at the moment, that is one of the most worrying skill shortages.
The Prime Minister is absolutely right that we should aspire to be a highly paid, highly skilled, highly productive economy.
The question is how we get there. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as stopping the supply of foreign labour and imagining that is enough to usher in a golden age for the British worker.
There are plenty of opportunities in areas such as green energy and finance, the creative industries and technology. The commercial sector and government should not be at one another’s throats, but working together to seize them.