“Mr President,” I said, in tones of calculated self-deprecation, “how come England hasn’t won the Fifa World Cup since I was two? France, Germany, Italy, Spain — all our European rivals, but not England. What’s wrong with us?” Blatter figuratively stroked the white cat on his lap, and replied that it was very simple. The trouble with England was the Premiership, he said. You import all these players from around the world. It means that the local talent never gets the same attention, or the same investment. That’s the problem with English football, he said, and then I found that my time was up and that the blonde Ukrainian six-footers were heading me to the door.
I was much struck by his analysis, and relayed it immediately to one of my colleagues, an ardent Lefty and lifelong Arsenal fan. I wondered whether there could be a smidgen of truth in what Blatter suggested. Perhaps all these intergalactic imports — Brazilians, Nigerians, Russians, Croats, you name it — were depressing the growth of our autochthonous talent. Perhaps we should have some rule — as Blatter suggested — to exclude these superstars, or to limit their numbers, in order to protect and bring on the native English players.
Oh, ah, I said, and accepted the wisdom of his judgment. I have been thinking about this argument over the past few weeks and months, because our number one priority as a society is to boost growth — and get people into work. Some readers may have been following the London elections, and will have gathered that we have fantastic plans to invest in transport, housing and regeneration schemes — projects that will cumulatively help create 200,000 jobs. We are building a platform now for a more successful and prosperous city in 10 and 20 years’ time: high-quality family homes, a better Tube network, new river crossings, orbital rail; and we are addressing the immediate economic problems by getting Londoners into work.
The trouble is — as many people have pointed out to me at street corners — that London’s formidable job-creating powers do not always seem to involve the creation of jobs for native Londoners. Go into any coffee shop and talk to the staff, listen to the voices on the building sites — and you will see how the city is working as a magnet for talent and energy from outside the UK, many from the countries that have recently acceded to the EU.
There are plenty of people who take a Sepp Blatter-ish line about this phenomenon. There are some who say the immigrants are simply too talented and energetic. I was discussing the problem with a group of journalists not long ago, when a Guardian man — a kindly and distinguished fellow — started heckling me. It wasn’t fair, he suggested, that indigenous Londoners should be asked to go toe to toe “with Polish graduates”. I see his point. I see the unfairness.
But we are forced to ask what is the alternative, and what is the best way forward for the young Londoners who are not finding the work that they need. I suppose we could try to protect them by constructing Blatteresque barriers and quotas — though we would almost certainly find that such moves were against EU law. But surely the best approach now is to look at every stage in the chain of causation that results in a young Londoner losing out, in the jobs market, to a contestant from abroad. We need to hear an honest and unflinching account from the employers: just why is it that so many individual recruitment decisions seem to go against young Londoners?
Why do immigrant workers seem to look at a job in McDonald’s or Starbucks as a stepping stone, while some who were born here apparently regard it as a dead end? Is the problem just to do with pay and conditions? Is it really true that immigrants will work harder for less? Is there really a difference in the “work ethic”, or is that an urban myth? One of my first priorities as re-elected mayor is to analyse and expose the roots of this problem.
I have already launched an inquiry into education in London, and we will now extend this to include all the failures of the labour market — all the reasons Londoners are not getting the jobs they need. We will simultaneously expand our apprenticeship programme by a colossal 250,000 — to give young people that vital experience of competing in a workplace. So far, 84 per cent have gone on to full-time jobs. But should we go for the Blatter solution, and haul up the drawbridge?
Against illegals, yes. Against talent, no. In football as in the economy at large, you don’t make people more competitive by excluding the competition.