Britain should focus on fixing its “skills problem” rather than continuing to rely on migrant workers from overseas, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said.
Talking to business leaders in the City of London on Monday, he said migration is not “the answer to all of our problems.”
Starmer acknowledged there is short-term demand for migrant labour amid workforce shortages, but stressed the need to fix the “skills problem” among the country’s existing population.
In a paper published before his speech, the Labour Party said that a future Labour government “will create stronger links between our evidence-led, points-based immigration system and our skills bodies to make sure we have the skilled workforce we need.”
The UK economy continues to suffer from labour shortages following Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, despite recent data showing a record number of previously “economically inactive” people entering or returning to the job market.
Jane Gratton, head of people policy at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said earlier this month: “Businesses are crying out for people to fill job vacancies at all skill levels, and this must be the number one focus for government if it’s serious about economic growth.
“There are still a huge number of vacancies, currently sitting at 1.134 million, and this is stopping firms in their tracks. It means they are struggling to meet the orders on their books, and it puts any plans for growth far out of reach.”
She urged the government to reform the Shortage Occupation List to help firms fill urgent job vacancies from outside the UK when they cannot recruit locally.
Asked on Monday about businesses’ pleas to allow more migrant workers to come to the UK to fill labour shortages, Starmer said: “We recognise the short-term problem and we are not going to be anti-business or anti-growth or anti-farming about this and allow short-term problems to create long-term problems.
“But we do have to get ourselves off the idea that migration is the answer to all of our problems.
“We’ve had a skills problem in this country for decades. We want to fix the fundamentals. I’m still struck by how many children leave school without the skills they are actually going to need for the jobs they are likely to be doing, the lives they are likely to be leading.”
Under a future Labour government, Starmer indicated, a visa scheme for industries hit by labour shortfalls would be “more likely” than granting young people from the European Union access to the country.
Addressing business leaders on Monday, Starmer set out his plans for growing the economy, warning that without new policies the UK risks falling behind eastern European nations.
Labour said the Conservative government has put the country on a “path of decline” and Britons are at risk of becoming worse off than Poland’s population by 2030.
Labour said its calculations of Britain’s wealth decline were based on assuming UK gross domestic product (GDP)—a measure of the economy’s health—per capita continues to grow at a similar rate of 0.5 percent in real terms as it did between 2010 and 2021.
That compares with 3.6 percent for Poland, 3 percent for Hungary, and 3.8 percent for Romania in the same timeframe.
Should that trajectory be sustained, then it would mean the average Briton would be poorer than their Polish counterpart by 2030 and less well-off than those residing in Romania and Hungary by 2040.
Last week, the Labour leader unveiled five “missions” his party will focus on if it wins the next general election.
As well as commitments on energy, the National Health Service (NHS), crime, and childcare, he pledged to secure the highest sustained growth in the G7, along with providing good jobs and productivity growth in every part of the country.
Since replacing the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2020, Starmer has worked to move the party towards the political centre ground.
Earlier this month, Starmer announced that Corbyn will not be allowed to stand as a Labour candidate at the next election.
In a speech on Feb. 15, the Labour leader said that Labour is now “unrecognisable” from its form during Corbyn’s leadership in 2015 to 2020 when it was plagued by allegations of antisemitism.
The Labour leader reiterated his vow that anyone who plays down antisemitism will be treated with “zero patience or tolerance” and acknowledged it is not “the end of the road” for tackling the issue.
He said Labour “will never again be a party captured by narrow interest” and “will never again be brought to its knees by racism or bigotry.”
He invited those on the far left of Labour to leave the party if they oppose his reforms, and confirmed Corbyn himself will be stripped of his candidacy for Labour.
The announcement angered Corbyn and his allies, who accused Starmer of violating Labour’s “values.”
PA Media contributed to this report.