Sorry, Chris Bryant - but who was it who wanted these Polish workers in the first place?

Tesco’s done more for employment in the UK than any politician ever will

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A man is allowed to change his mind – even in the world of politics. For example, Chris Bryant was a member of the Conservative Party and an elected office-holder in the Oxford University Conservative Association, before switching his affections. Later, as a Labour MP, he was an enthusiastic Blairite – and then became one of those who (successfully) agitated for Gordon Brown to replace TB as Prime Minister.

 All we can reasonably demand of those engaging in such tergiversations is that they have pondered deeply and, perhaps, even in a principled way about their change of position. Alas, that does not seem to be the case in the latest stage of Mr Bryant’s unintentionally entertaining journey of political self-discovery. Over the weekend he gave the Sunday Telegraph paragraphs of a speech he was to deliver the day after the paper came out, in which he attacked “unscrupulous employers whose only interest seems to be finding labour as cheaply as possible, [who] recruit workers in large numbers in low wage countries in the EU, bring them to the UK….and still not even meet the national minimum wage.”

Mr Bryant specifically accused Tesco of “moving their distribution centre in Kent” to facilitate such nefarious practices. He went on to accuse the clothing firm Next of a similar sort of abuse: “Last year they brought 500 Polish workers to work in their South Elmshall warehouse for their summer sale and another 300 this summer…they get to avoid Agency Worker Regulations, so Polish temps end up considerably cheaper than the local workforce.”

Within 24 hours of the publication of these remarks, Bryant was frantically retreating. Tesco pointed out that it had no distribution centre in “Kent”, but had moved one within Essex, to Dagenham. It added that “we work incredibly hard to recruit from within the local area, and have just recruited 350 local people to work in our Dagenham site.” A spokesman for Next said that if Bryant had taken the trouble to contact the firm beforehand, it could have told him that “agency workers from Poland cost us exactly the same as local agency workers and our existing employees. For clarity, the nationality of workers in no way affects their rights under Agency Workers Regulations, a fact Mr Bryant should have been aware of.” Next’s spokesman was presumably referring to the fact that Bryant is the Shadow Minister for Borders and Immigration, and therefore ought to have gained a rudimentary understanding of the law in such matters.

Actually, it’s even more reprehensible than that. More than almost any other politician, Bryant had been an advocate of the enlargement of the EU within a single market and a single currency – the lynchpins of a system which encourages the freest possible mobility of labour across the old national borders. From 2002 to 2007 Bryant was Chair of the Labour Movement for Europe, and for two years before that was Head of European Affairs at the BBC (some would say that these two roles were indistinguishable).

Bryant now says that it had been a “mistake” of his (and of the Labour Government for which he served as Minister for Europe under Gordon Brown) to have “allowed people to come to the UK immediately from day one” when some of the Eastern European countries, including Poland, were admitted to the EU. Yet that is an empty apology in the context of his current complaint about Next’s employment of Polish agency workers: even a delay in freedom of movement for Polish labour following EU accession would have been temporary, and they would certainly now be free to come – as indeed will Bulgarians and Romanians from January of next year.

Now we are getting to the heart of the matter, in terms of British domestic politics. The UK Independence Party has been gaining unprecedented levels of support to a large extent based on fears – which it plays on remorselessly – of the possible scale of immigration from Bulgaria and Romania. David Cameron and the Conservatives have been doing their best not to be outflanked by Ukip, which is why they came up with the risible idea of planting advertisements in the media of those two countries warning how unpleasant their citizens might find life in the UK.

While it is commonly said that Ukip is a magnet for disaffected Conservatives, its message is no less appealing to Labour’s working class core vote – as Bryant clearly recognises. Gordon Brown was intensely discomfited by this truth, when he was challenged by an irate Labour voter, Mrs Gillian Duffy, during the 2010 general election campaign: “All these Eastern Europeans what’s coming in: where are they flocking from?” It wasn’t just the fact that Brown may have misheard the word “flocking” that perturbed him: like the rest of his party, he never had the courage either to admit to a fundamental error of policy, or to make an absolute defence of freedom of labour within the European Union – which, after all, had been an unavoidable fact of life for Britain once Margaret Thatcher signed the Single European Act back in 1987.

Since Chris Bryant is still – so far as we know – a firm supporter of greater British integration into Europe (including membership of the European single currency), he has no principled argument against what he termed in his leaked speech “the negative effects migration can have on the UK labour market”. Instead he is reduced to crude soundbites – sometimes called “dog whistle politics” – desperately trying to persuade the electorate that he is a nationalist in matters of employment: for example in April he declared “it would be nice sometimes when you go into a British hotel if the receptionist was British.” I imagine some hotel receptionists might have their own opinions about Mr Bryant.

Anyway, by the time he actually made his speech yesterday to the Institute for Public Policy Research, Bryant’s opinion of Tesco’s employment practices was not quite what it had appeared to be a day earlier: “Tesco are clear that they have tried to recruit locally. And I hope they can provide more reassurance for their existing staff. But the fact that staff are raising concern shows how sensitive the issue has become.” Yes, it is a sensitive issue, which is exactly why politicians such as Chris Bryant –a vigorous critic of errant newspapers – should check their facts before wading in; or as the BBC’s Evan Davis put it to Bryant in an excruciating interview on the Today programme yesterday: “The main lesson from this is that you don’t pre-release bits of speeches that are half-baked, sloppily drafted, then recoil from them the next day.”

We can only add to that magisterial rebuke that not only has Tesco done more for employment in this country than any here-today gone-tomorrow politician will ever do; the firm’s allegedly reprehensible commitment to keeping its input costs down is inseparable from its ability to keep output costs at a minimum. In other words: keeping British families’ food bills as low as possible at a time of squeezed finances. There’s another thing that Tesco manages, which Bryant finds so difficult: it doesn’t promise what it can’t deliver.

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