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Blog: We have to stop the demonisation of ‘unskilled’ immigration

Policymakers' hero worship of "skilled" immigration has failed - blog by HPC Executive Director, Luke Hildyard for Left Foot Forward

Future immigration to Britain will be governed by an “Australian-style points-based immigration system” that prioritises “the best and the brightest” according to Home Secretary Priti Patel in her speech to the Conservative Party Conference last week.

These have become such clichéd terms, over-used by so many of Patel’s predecessors, that they are now usually ignored or ridiculed when repeated by the incumbent Home Secretary.

But the language and over-arching philosophy actually provides an interesting insight into the dim view that political and business leaders take of wider society, and their flawed understanding of how prosperity is created.

Patel’s speech boasts of how the immigration system will support “brilliant scientists, the finest academics and leading people in their field.” The Prime Minister’s Chief Advisor Dominic Cummings has also previously argued for more high-skilled immigration and less (so-called) low-skilled.

Cummings explains that this approach enjoys public support, but given the lack of prominent advocates for “low-skilled” immigrants, this isn’t surprising.

Actually, there is an argument that prioritising the supposedly “best and the brightest” (who are usually just the people who have had the best opportunities) is completely the wrong way to think about immigration policy.

There are loads of people in Britain who would love to do the prestigious and well-paid jobs Patel discusses, if they were given the education and training to qualify for such roles.

Equally, for workers from the developing world, working as a cleaner or a fruit picker on the UK minimum wage represents a significant upgrade on their living standards – and these are still vital jobs that need to be done by someone.

So there is a strong case for favouring ‘low-skilled’ immigrants over ‘high-skilled’. The reverse approach only makes sense if you think wealth creation is driven by a tiny number of highly-skilled individuals at the top who are just fundamentally better humans than the rest of us, with unique and irreplaceable talents.

The implication is that clever individuals will be welcomed in to do jobs that most people are simply not capable of, but there will be plenty of boring, painful and low-paid work for everybody else.

It actually reflects quite a dismal opinion of the general public (on which note, it should be observed that Patel co-authored a book claiming British workers are amongst ‘the worst idlers in the world, while Cummings has referred to supermarket workers as ‘mediocre people’).

While relaxing visa requirements for ‘leading people in their field’ might be welcome in isolation, the logic of ‘the brightest and the best’ recommends a wider policy regime that accommodates every demand of those at the top, to the detriment of everybody else. That means lower taxes on the rich and fewer rights at work or environmental protections for the majority.

That’s depressing and dispiriting enough as it is, but the philosophy also happens to be totally wrong. As Marianna Mazzucato’s work on the tech industry highlights, innovations attributed to private entrepreneurs are typically the result of decades of publicly-funded collective endeavour.

In UK business, companies have spent increasingly obscene amounts of money on their CEOs over the past two decades in the misguided belief that the success of vast organisations depends on one or two people at the top. Corporate governance reforms and measures to reduce pay inequality have been rejected on the grounds that they will punish supposed wealth creators.

The net result has been stagnating pay for the wider workforce, a lamentable productivity record and one of the highest gaps between rich and poor in the developed world.

Policymakers’ hero worship of those at the top and the servile policy regime we’ve enacted in the interests of ‘the brightest and the best’ has failed. These people are not coming to save us. It’s time to banish this kind of rhetoric – and the philosophy behind it – for good.

Luke Hildyard is the director of the High Pay Centre

This blog post originally appeared on Left Foot Forward.

Posted on 22 October 2019

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