What We Need From Labour Is Work Not Words

The first zero-hours contract I came across involved my niece getting ripped off by some spiv running an NHS contract to provide home care, so I am not callously uninterested in the problem , but reading about Ed Miliband’s plans to tackle it makes me groan.

According to the briefings, he has in mind a formula which would force employers to upgrade to a better contract after X number of hours over Y weeks.  It all sounds too complicated to make stick and unlikely to achieve anything except a small reduction in the number of crap jobs available. Like a lot of Labour initiatives, it makes you think that if good intentions changed anything, you might as well write a policy saying everybody must be happy.

The final pisser for my niece, when she packed in on her experience, was having her wages docked by a hundred quid for “training”, which amounted to being left in a room for an hour (unpaid) to read a government leaflet.  Somewhere in there is an allegory of the heart of the problem with modern politics – the inclination to write something (a guidance leaflet, a rule, a video script, a slogan) rather than do something.

The way to beat zero-hours contracts is to offer something better.  Labour could get Labour votes back like a shot by offering to re-open the mines, dredge the canals, or subsidise a textiles industry revival. There would be great difficulties in the way – most of them to do with membership of the EU – but overcoming them is the sort of hard political graft we would really like to see. It would be expensive, too, but probably not more expensive than the endless series of failed fixes detailed in a new book.

As the holder of a European Computer Driving Licence, I should make the following confession for the benefit of anyone who has to read job applications …

I signed up for a free ECDL course, sometime in the 90s, when the organisation which employed me was running them, and wanted me to review the experience.  After several failed attempts to log on to the lessons, I sent a memo saying I had reached Sod-it Point and gave up. Some months later, my certificate of competence dropped through my home letter box.

I am not sure which government education initiative paid for my certificate but it sounds like Individual Learning Accounts – named and shamed along with Tax Credits, the Child Support Agency, the Millennium Dome, reform of farm subsidies and many more expensive failures, in Blunders of our Governments, by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe.

Peter Wilby, reviewing the book in the Guardian on 4.9.13, said: “This book will make you gasp in disbelief and stamp your feet in rage.

“The causes of the blunders were numerous. In many cases, ministers and their senior officials were simply ignorant – King and Crewe politely call it ‘cultural disconnect’ – of how large sections of the population lived from day to day. The Tories had no inkling that, if sent a poll tax bill of several hundred pounds, some families, and particularly elderly couples, would not be able to pay

“But Labour has become almost equally disconnected from real life, with its frontbenchers and advisers increasingly drawn from a cohort that went from school to university to Westminster thinktank without ever working in a retail store, a hamburger joint or a benefit office …

 “King and Crewe reckon that Labour and Tory governments are equally prone to cockups. In a postscript, they judge the coalition, with its start-stop-start NHS reforms, its misallocated franchise award for the West Coast mainline, its aborted plan to sell off forests, its malfunctioning disability assessments, and so on, to be ‘if anything … even more blunder-prone than its predecessors.”

Wilby comments: “Though this book provides a comprehensive guide for ministers who wish to avoid blunders, I fear we shall see many more. As the authors point out, ministers now wish to be seen as men and women of decisive action, sweeping aside doubters and cowards, and in this they are encouraged by the 24-hour media, always demanding that something be done, impatient of delay and eager to portray as ditherers those who think carefully and consult widely before they act.”

Hear hear to that.

I don’t know if the book touches it but one of the most expensive and misdirected drives of the past two decades, in my opinion, was “education, education, education” – the drive to produce more graduates, with the idea that we would move everybody on from needing to do any old-fashioned labour.  There is a huge hole in our economy – expensive in terms of social problems, social security and public health –where jobs for strong backs and arms should be.  The new socialist thinks it is our job to lead the working class out of working.  But there are a lot of people who would rather sweat than worry for a living and we owe them the opportunity. They are the people who built this country.

I am not sure if a new high-speed rail network is what they need.  If David Cameron wants to sell it to me, I want to hear how many hours each billion will buy of Brits using spades and spanners on the sort of work which is never wasted, because it produces skills, pride and strength, as well as big holes in the ground.  But HS2 does at least have the merit of being a proposal to build something rather than learn a new way to blag a fiver.

It’s my blog, so I’m allowed a biggish by-the-way here.  Did anybody else notice, in the recent series on a Cardiff call-centre, that the place was apparently set up in the first place to farm regional job-creation grants?  It hit a crisis when the government funding ran out.  I am surprised that I have yet to see any politician questioning whether we should ever have been spending taxpayers’ money on increased production of nuisance calls in the first place.

While I am writing for the Politics and Economics sections of this blog, I want to have in my records …

* Tim Adams, Observer, 8.9.13, reviewing a new book on economics, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, says the authors are starting from the “provable belief that scarcity captures the mind”.  For example: “A 1946 study of hunger revealed not only the obvious – that, faced with starvation, food of any kind would be eaten and plates licked clean – but also that the brain was hijacked entirely by this need.”

Scarcity of time, money, etcetera, similarly tunnels the brain to the need, sums up Adams. He goes on: “This ‘scarcity trap’ provides an explanation for unpalatable truths, the authors argue. It shows why the poor are more likely to be obese … less likely to send children to school … least likely to wash their hands or treat water before drinking it … the poor are not  just short of cash. They are short on bandwidth.”

* John Naughton, Observer, 8.9.13, quotes Keynes: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Naughton is leading to the point that Ronald Coase, who died last week at 102, forecast the growth of internet monopolies back in the 1930s.  He had noticed that big companies shut market forces out of their internal activities by taking over supply lines, rather than going to the trouble and expense of negotiating with them – “transaction costs”.

* Matthew Parris, Times, 7.9.13: “If G.K.Chesterton had written nothing more in his life he would still deserve his literary pedestal for one quote: ‘Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.’”

Parris comments: “They (economists) get it right 95 percent of the time … by assuming tomorrow will be like today, which 95 percent it is.  But the 5 percent of the time when tomorrow is unlike today is the only time we actually need economists to warn us. And they rarely do.

“Perhaps if we stopped calling them economists and renamed them augurs we’d be halfway to cutting their professional status down to size. For what it’s worth, here’s my own augury – as unwelcome to Tories as to the Left: that government has precious little influence over economic growth one way or the other.”

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