Page last updated at 15:35 GMT, Friday, 16 November 2007

What does 'British jobs' pledge mean?

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News

Gordon Brown's statement that he wants "British jobs for British workers" has created a political furore.

Gordon Brown
Britain must be a "world leader" in business and science, the PM said

Opponents have described it as meaningless, illegal under EU law, even racist.

But the prime minister's supporters say it is all about equipping the long-term unemployed in Britain to do the jobs needed in an increasingly skills-based economy.

The controversy began in September at Labour's annual conference, when during his keynote speech to delegates Mr Brown said he wanted Britain to be a "world leader" in science, business, creativity and manufacturing.

All fairly standard Brown rhetoric, but it was what followed - as Mr Brown announced the government would be "drawing on the talents of all to create British jobs for British workers" - that caused a few jaws to drop around Westminster.

In one sense, this was not out of step with Mr Brown's theme of "Britishness" and redefining patriotism. The conference hall and stage in Bournemouth were decked out in out in red, white and blue union flags.

But the Conservatives immediately seized on the phrase, claiming that it was illegal under EU law, which allows for the free movement of labour.

'Moral compass'

It also caused discomfort in the Labour ranks, some of whom felt it had overtones of the far right.

And it was this line of attack that Tory leader David Cameron seized on during a stormy Queen's Speech debate in the Commons - as he sought to inflict maximum damage on Mr Brown in front of his own MPs.

Holding up two leaflets bearing the headlines "British jobs for British workers" and "Keep British jobs for British workers", Mr Cameron said: "Here's one he borrowed off the National Front. Here's another one he borrowed off the British National Party.

"Where was his moral compass when he was doing that?"

A string of ministers have been forced to defend or explain "British jobs for British workers" in the weeks since.

It was a wounding accusation, given Labour's strong tradition of fighting the BNP in its industrial and inner city heartlands.

The clear implication was that Mr Brown was using "dog whistle" tactics to appeal to working class voters who have deserted Labour for the BNP.

"Dog-whistling" - a political phrase imported from Australia - generally means using coded language to say one thing to the general public something more specific to a targeted audience.

National Front publication
The slogan has been used by the National Front and BNP

In other words, Mr Cameron was accusing Mr Brown of playing politics with immigration in marginal seats where it is a big issue.

The government earlier announced it is putting £500m a year into creating extra training places in England.

This, it says, puts some flesh on the bones of what Mr Brown promised at the Labour conference.

The announcement included a pledge that there will be a grand total of 7.5 million training places available over three years, including existing college places.

Tory spokesman Chris Grayling accused the government of conjuring up a "fake announcement" to distract attention from the political "trouble" caused by the "British jobs for British workers" pledge.

But skills Secretary John Denham hit back at claims Labour politicians were "ashamed" by Mr Brown's rhetoric.

He said the BNP's campaign had been about "racism and xenophobia", whereas the government wanted to ensure better training, allowing British people to fill jobs.

Mr Denham told the BBC: "What Gordon Brown said he wanted to make sure of was we move towards full employment and there is the offer of a British job for every British worker."

He agreed that there was nothing to stop a new arrival from Eastern European from taking advantage of the training places on offer - but the scheme was specifically aimed at getting people lacking basic skills or the long-term unemployed back into the jobs market.

Mr Denham said: "What I've announced, we would be doing even if there were no immigrant workers"

He added: "Employers often feel forced to go overseas for labour... If we are successful in this, it will be much easier for employers to recruit people from around the corner and know that the jobs will be done."

'Deconstructed'

Stephen Pound, Labour MP for Ealing North, west London - while admitting the prime minister's words could be misinterpreted - says their use was innocent.

"It's one of those examples of politicians trying to say the right thing and having it deconstructed so much that it's like Jacques Derrida had never died," he told BBC News.

Mr Pound added: "If anyone ever suggested that Gordon Brown could ever give a nod and a wink to the knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, they just need to spend a couple of minutes in his company.

Some have suggested that it appears to amount to little more than employment apartheid
Keith Vaz MP

"To say that Gordon Brown is giving any aid and comfort to racists is simply madness... never in a million years."

Whatever the interpretation of Mr Brown's comments, it would be illegal - and therefore meaningless - for the government to say British jobs could be done only by British people.

Citizens of EU member states have the right to work across the union.

Keith Vaz, a former Labour minister for Europe who is now chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, said in Parliament: "I worry about that [Gordon Brown's] statement.

"It lacks credible arguments, and some have suggested that it appears to amount to little more than employment apartheid.

"It assumes that foreign workers are somehow stealing jobs from United Kingdom workers, an idea for which there is absolutely no evidence."

Vacancies

Politicians of all parties argue that too many British people who could work are instead claiming Jobseekers' Allowance or Incapacity Benefit, holding back the economy.

But ministers faced embarrassment last month when it emerged that more than half of new jobs created under Labour since 1997 had gone to foreign workers - more than previously stated.

Mark Rye, of the employment firm DKM Labour Solutions, explained why this was often the case.

He said: "It's a lot easier to find jobs for these people because these are the people applying for the jobs.

"Gordon Brown's suggestion that we should march British jobless to the front of the queue belies his lack of understanding of the situation."

Asked whether many British people did not want to work, he replied: "Yes, I think that's one way of putting it."

Vacancies have to be filled, either by British citizens or foreign workers.

Mr Brown's supporters argue that the boost to training gives his statement substance.

Others are still not so sure.

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