London’s position as a global city is vulnerable to the fast-changing global economy and the uncertainties of Brexit. Do the three main UK-wide political parties address London’s skills needs in their manifestos?
London’s economy runs on openness; the capital accounts for 30 per cent of the UK’s exports, and one in four London workers is a foreign national (compared to eight per cent of workers in the rest of the UK). As London looks ahead to the many possible futures of Brexit, staying open to the world looks more important than ever; how do the parties line up when thinking about future immigration arrangements? What could this mean for the capital? And how could the UK’s skills and training system adapt to provide the workers we need?
Future immigration arrangements
The Conservatives make much of their plan for an ‘Australian-style points system’, though their proposals are about as Australian as Foster’s lager. While the immigration system proposed in their manifesto (and in the Immigration Bill) relaxes requirements to check the domestic market before recruiting overseas, it will still require most applicants to have a job offer before coming over here. In Australia, if you score enough points for skills, language, age and work experience, you can enter the country and seek work.
Centre for London has argued that London thrives on this type of frictionless immigration arrangements, which operates for EU nationals today under freedom of movement. Applying for a job from overseas may work for hospitals, legal firms and head offices, but is less likely to work for tech start-ups, cafes and hotels. The new immigration regime proposed seems unlikely to enable these types of flows, though a ‘Barista visa’ for young working tourists, as we’ve proposed, might mitigate the problem, as well as maintain cultural connections among young Europeans on both sides of the Channel.
The core of the Liberal Democrats’ policies is their proposal to abandon Brexit and therefore retain European freedom of movement. Beyond that, they propose replacing the employer-led ‘Tier 2’ system with ‘a more flexible, merit-based system’, which may suggest a move towards a point-based system. They also propose, as the Conservatives did before the election was called, a two-year post-study visa for international students – another recommendation in Centre for London’s Open City report.
Labour’s manifesto is relatively silent on the future immigration regime, though it emphasises rejection of ‘hostile environment’ policies and an approach that respects the rights of migrants. Their silence may be tactical: it is likely that the European Commission would add freedom of movement to Labour’s proposed Brexit deal – a ‘Norway-plus option’ including a customs union, alignment with the Single Market, and dynamic alignment on workers’ rights. But it may not be helpful for Labour to say this too loudly on the Leave-voting doorstep.
Skilling up Londoners for the jobs of the future
The potential impacts of Brexit have also shone a light on the UK’s skills and training system, particularly vocational education which has been received a lot more lip service than funding in recent years. Centre for London’s report Human Capital highlighted the increasing importance that life-long learning will assume as technological disruption affects more and more jobs.
Labour promises a ‘National Education Service’. And, as well as scrapping university tuition fees and bringing back maintenance grants for further and higher education, they propose free lifelong entitlements to training, and extra support for workers in vulnerable industries.
The Liberal Democrats also propose restoring maintenance grants for poorer pupils, but also want to create a Skills Wallet, which will give every adult £10,000 to spend on education and training through their lives.
The Conservatives’ offer is focused on requiring apprentices in all new infrastructure projects, as well as a £3 billion Skills Fund to match-fund training for individuals and small businesses. They also promise more investment in the FE college estate and a dedicated allocation to help people in disadvantaged communities.
Just as the three principal parties acknowledge the value that immigration can bring to the country, it is heartening to see that all three are clearly grappling with the challenge of how to help people adapt their skills to the needs of a rapidly changing economy. Characteristically, Labour talks of a ‘national service’, the Liberal Democrats of ‘individual accounts’, and the Conservatives of ‘match-funding’.
However none of them seem to recognise the potential role for regional government – in articulating needs for skills and immigration, and managing a system that can enable London’s services to meet London’s particular needs without being imposed on the rest of the country. Whatever the outcome of the Brexit process, this case for more regional influence will continue to be made.