Monday, 15 May 2023

Not traditional Tories at all


There seems to be an ongoing battle in Sunak’s cabinet between those who think that feeding the population is on the whole a good idea and those who are so ideologically opposed to immigration that they think that it is better to let food rot in the fields than to allow businesses to recruit people to collect it. As has become the norm in the Tory Party, it seems that the ideologues are winning. Since Sunak has the power to override or sack the Home Secretary any time he wishes, it is reasonable to conclude that he is on the side of the ideologues, for the time being at least.

Braverman’s core argument seems to be that we should train up UK workers as HGV drivers, fruit pickers, and butchers rather than rely on attracting people from elsewhere to fill those jobs, and that’s the way to build a “high-skilled, high wage economy that is less dependent on low-skilled foreign labour”. The logic involved in that – that training people to do jobs which she obviously regards as low-skilled helps to increase skills and wages  escapes me, but let’s leave that to one side.

One of the issues raised by her apporoach is this: to what extent should people be free to choose their occupations rather than being ‘encouraged’ or even compelled to do those jobs which are available? Clearly, it cannot be a completely open choice – if 50 million of the UK’s citizens chose to become cobblers, we’d have an excess of shoes and a shortage of just about everything else. But neither do most of us want to see the type of command economy which marks people out as they leave school, allocating them to occupations according to need. In the real world, as a matter of fact, it tends to be the case that the children of the most well-off in society have rather more choice about how to earn their living than do those from poorer homes. There is another ideological component underlying that: for the political right (accepting the limitations and reservations about using such simplistic terms as left and right), the masses (but not themselves or their families, obviously) are there to serve the needs of the economy, whilst for the political left, the economy is there to enable people to achieve fulfilment as individuals. (As an aside, it’s a distinction which obviously places the modern Labour Party as one of a number of competing brands on the political right.)

In practice, things are not quite as black and white as that and, in the economy as currently constituted, we need a mechanism of some sort to decide how to fill those jobs which need filling, whilst avoiding a glut of cobblers. For the Conservative Party and Labour Party alike, the traditional answer is that ‘the markets’ should solve the problem. Shortages in one occupation should lead to increased wages, whilst surpluses in another should see pay falling behind. Looking at the actions of the current government, that begs the question: are they really traditional Tories at all? Deliberately holding wages below the rate of inflation (and thus making those receiving them poorer) in occupations where there is a clear and growing shortage is the reverse of what free market ideology suggests should happen. Their approach increasingly seems to be one of compulsion and direction in which the population does as it is told to serve those who wield economic power; but that only underlines the extent to which they have moved away from a belief in market forces towards authoritarianism. Braverman is just the most egregious example.

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