John Rentoul: 'British jobs' blows up in the PM's face

Gordon Brown's disastrous mistake in using the language of the BNP on immigration is a gift to the Tories
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The Independent Online

British jobs for British workers: funny how few people said so at the time, but it was a disastrous thing for Gordon Brown to say. Where did it come from? Why did he say it? Trying to get to the bottom of the immigration and labour market statistics has been relatively simple compared with tracing the origin of this alien phrase and how it was granted indefinite leave to remain in the Prime Minister's record.

Much has been said of Brown's vision since he decided against an election this month so he could "get on with putting my vision of the country across". Yet there he was, in his speech to the Labour conference on 24 September, saying: "As we set out on the next stage of our journey, this is our vision." There followed a passage for which this was the punch line: "Drawing on the talents of all to create British jobs for British workers."

When Daniel Finkelstein of The Times noted that these words had recently appeared on BNP leaflets, one of the Prime Minister's advisers rang him to say that Brown was not copying the BNP, because he had said it as long ago as June.

At this point, we scurry back to the electronic archive. Oh no, he didn't. What Brown said to the GMB union congress in Brighton, three weeks before he became Prime Minister, was this: "It is time to train British workers for the British jobs that will be available over the coming few years." It was a curious phrase, but it is rather different. More significantly, though, it was paraphrased by some journalists as "British jobs for British workers", without either Brown objecting or a full-dress liberal outcry.

But what were Brown's people thinking of? There are Googlable instances of the BNP using "British jobs for British workers" as far back as 1986. I remember the National Front using the slogan in the 1970s. It is indelibly associated with the anti-immigrant far right. Yet Brown did not appear to be aware of the association – in which case he is either shockingly naive or deliberately playing with the fire of BNP language.

Either way, it was a terrible judgement. It gave David Cameron permission to return to the scene of the Tories' bloodiest defeat in the 2005 election campaign. Immigration had rebounded on Michael Howard, with Cameron as his head of policy in charge of drawing up the manifesto. It was a manifesto that declared: "It's not racist to impose limits on immigration", and asked: "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" It was an ugly suggestion that most people were racist, didn't want to say so, but would vote for a party that articulated their hidden fears.

It was not a message that appealed beyond the Conservative core vote, and Tony Blair used it to suggest that the "nasty party" was still in thrall to the obsessions of the past. He could do so partly because the surge of workers from the new EU countries was only just beginning, and partly because applications for asylum – the form of immigration that had dominated the headlines in the Middle Blair Period – had been more than halved from the peak.

Now immigration has returned as an issue and – largely because of Brown's miscalculation – on terms that are unexpectedly favourable to the Conservatives.

When Cameron touched on the subject on his return from holiday in August, saying that immigration "has been too high", the old balloon started to go up, with people like me accusing him of a lurch to the right. But last week Cameron devoted a whole speech to the subject of "a growing population" and Trevor Phillips, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, welcomed his attempt to start "a grown-up conversation". Indeed, quite unlike the situation in 2005, there are many among the right-on liberal classes who will prefer Cameron's reasonable and measured tone to Brown's unsavoury insinuations.

Thus it has been left to the Conservatives to point out that BJ4BW would be contrary to EU law – a risky tactic for Cameron because many in his party will say this strengthens the argument for leaving the EU altogether. But it helps make the point that Brown's words are a symbolic gesture rather than a practical policy.

Even if Brown's flirtation with anti-immigrant language could be justified as ruthless populism in the service of "responding to voters' concerns", it has gone horribly wrong. It helped draw attention to one of those squishy bits of politics where social change had overtaken settled assumptions and the statistics were soft. Thus, on the day that Cameron made his tonally careful speech, it turned out that the Government had underestimated how many British jobs had gone to foreigners.

As a description of what has been happening, Brown should have said: "British jobs: half for British workers, half for foreigners." As a policy for the future, what he said was meaningless. Suddenly, the Prime Minister looked simultaneously strident, out of touch and powerless.

It is even more serious than that. By muffing this one, Brown has let the Conservatives back into contention not only on immigration but also on welfare reform. Let me explain. There are no diktats that can cut immigration much in the short run – not without leaving the EU anyway – as Cameron more or less accepted in his speech. Migration is driven by economics. A million more jobs for foreigners over the past decade are a measure of – and a contributor to – the dynamism of the British economy. Government decisions can only make it slightly harder or easier for foreigners to come here: EU enlargement made it easier; the clampdown on asylum made it harder.

Most of the obvious ways of making it harder for people to come here have been tried. So Cameron moved on to some of the less obvious ones last week. Raising the age at which foreigners may join British spouses to 21 is something the Government is already considering. A more important proposal, though, is Cameron's unspecified "radical" welfare reform to get British people off benefit and into the new jobs that are sucking in Poles.

If radical reform were easy, it would have happened by now, but by drawing attention to the millions of Britons who are still unemployed or long-term sick after a decade, Cameron chips away at a central disappointment with New Labour. Last week's revised labour market figures underlined how little had been achieved of that early promise to get people "off benefit and into work".

All in all, "British jobs for British workers" has been a full-strength, top-of-the-range, delayed-action disaster for Brown. He got away with it at the time of his conference speech because as the new guy he was entitled to the benefit of the doubt. There were puzzled faces and feelings of unease, and now we know why. He was playing with fire, and last week the whole place went up in flames.