BBC interviewers are always so eager to trip up politicians – I know, I was one – that they often forget to listen to what they actually say.

Thus with Boris Johnson this week, quizzed about pigs, prices and petrol shortages without fully registering what he had to say on pay. When have you ever heard a Conservative Prime Minister repeatedly lecturing British bosses on how they should be paying higher wages and improving the conditions of their workers, like some Tory Tony Benn? Conservatives always used to say that it was for the market to decide.

Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher spent the 1970s and 80s trying to lower working class wages by destroying the trade union movement. They were ultimately successful in doing that – and destroying Scottish manufacturing industry in the process. John Major was keen on expanding the European Union to include low-pay nations like Romania and Bulgaria for the same reason: to help keep wages low here and therefore "keep inflationary pressures under control”.


It was also the basis of Tony Blair's “flexible labour market”. Drafting in 130,000 low-paid non-union workers a year after that EU expansion in 2004 significantly diminished the bargaining power of now largely-non-unionised workers in the UK private sector, though it benefited some middle-class earners. The result was a low-wage, low-productivity economy and the longest freeze on British earnings since the Napoleonic Wars; this even as the assets of the wealthy increased massively following the 2008 financial crash.

Of course, many people don't believe a word that Mr Johnson says, so it's tempting to dismiss his talk of improving pay and condition as a feeble attempt to cover up the disaster of Brexit. There's no denying the supply chain crisis. There is a global shortage of labour at any price. But as he again portrays himself as the worker's friend in today's conference speech, he's not entirely wrong about pay.

Tony Benn

Tony Benn


Experts, like Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, insist that, at 4% or 5% per annum, wages aren't rising very much on average. However, the key word there is “average”. Many working-class occupations are seeing substantial increases – not just lorry drivers. According to Reed recruitment, one of Britain's largest employment agencies, pay in social care, upon whose poor remuneration many crocodile tears have been shed, has been rising by 20% year on year. Hospitality and catering – including kitchen staff, junior chefs and housekeepers – is rising by 18%. Even in retail, pay is increasing by 10%. Meanwhile many white-collar occupations, especially in the public sector, are stagnant or even falling after inflation.

Pay is also rising rapidly in construction. According to Hudson Contract, one of the biggest sub-contractors to the building industry, average weekly pay of freelance UK tradespeople has reached nearly £1,000. I recently contacted a local tradesman, who used to do good work in our area at low cost despite having poor language skills. He told me it would be two months before he could fit me in and, by the way, he now charges £200 a day call-out. Well, good for him.

Read more: £15 an hour may come sooner than we think

This differential pay gap is exposing Britain's new class divide. The middle classes did very well out of cheap labour for many years, fixing up houses and building extensions. But times are changing. Cheap food, clothes, hospitality, care homes have been underpinned by low pay, in Britain and abroad. Meanwhile, many traditionally solid middle-class occupations are being “hollowed out” by new technology in legal services, accounting and management. Some highly educated people in media are earning less than a plumber would get out of bed for. The left-wing Novara Media recently advertised for a social media editor at £12.50 per hour – though it subsequently raised it to the princely sum of £15, part-time.

Anyway, if this post-Brexit earnings boom is an illusion, as Twitter pundits claim, you'd have to ask why employers are so upset about it. Lord Woolfson, boss of Next, and an enthusiastic Brexiter to boot, warned yesterday of a “1970s-style inflationary spiral” because wages are rising so fast. And what is his solution to this problem? It is to throw open the very borders he campaigned so hard to close. Ruby McGregor-Smith, President of British Chambers of Commerce, and a Conservative Peer, laid it on the line: “We must get the visas we need now and quickly...Whatever industry needs they must get”.

Read more: The Tory Red Wall is wilting at the greening of Boris Johnson

Mr Johnson insists that he is not going to “reach for the lever of uncontrolled immigration” no matter how much employers squeal. He will of course, eventually. Tory prime ministers cannot resist the demands of capital indefinitely. The Manchester conference has seen intense lobbying by business organisations pressing for a relaxation of visa requirements and a return, effectively, to freedom of movement. However, it may not be the solution to their pay woes.

It emerged yesterday that the Government's offer of 5,000 visas for lorry drivers to come from the EU netted only 127 suitable applicants. Haulage workers no longer want to work unsocial hours being ripped off by UK service stations while driving over the worst roads in Europe. Funny that. Similarly in hospitality and other services, it may be that it is no longer so easy to import cheap workers from Europe. Which means more workers from further afield, if it is possible to find and train them.

All this has fed into the extraordinary anti-Boris movement amongst many of his many erstwhile Tory supporters. They are appalled by his tax rises and what many Tories regard as a naïve and reckless bid to make all electricity generation carbon-free by 2035. The prominent Brexit pundit, Isabel Oakeshott, said this week: “If people wanted a socialist government, they'd have voted for the party with the track record”.

Mr Johnson is a shape-shifting enigma, now posing as an improbable reincarnation of socialist Tony Benn, who of course also opposed the EU. The PM is no Bennite, obviously. But come the election, working people are unlikely to forget his promise that the age of low pay is over.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald