Two words have become common currency as the election campaign kicked into its final frenzied weeks: Landslide . Convergence.
With the prospect of an unequivocal Labour victory comes the question of how much the main Partiesí policies really differ. After all, variants of many of Labourís ideas have been tried out by the curent Government. And the Conservativesí have shifted the ground of political debate so far toward a workfare consensus that Labour thinking has become tainted.
But anyone attending the Training & Employment Networkís 3 party debate on March 18th will have little doubt of some fundamental differences between Labour and Conservatives.
For the Tories, James Paice MP reiterated the laisez faire stance that "real jobs are those producing goods and services at the right price". Under the Tory vision "the jobless hold their future in their own hands and must make themselves employable." But Stephen Byers, for Labour, made it clear that Governments have "a positive and prime role in job creation" because economic growth is not leading to significant growth in the stock of full-time jobs. Government has a responsibility to make efforts to increase the stock of jobs through employer subsidies and by mechanisms like the "intermediate labour market".
We think Paice is wrong and Byers is right.
If Labour wins the General Election their policy platform will represent the most significant chance for the unemployed in more than a generation. Compared to the Conservatives, Labour will give job creation one of its highest priorities, symbolised by the presence of a Cabinet rank Minister and the role of the Chancellor in coordinating all the new Governmentís "welfare-to-work" measures.
Labour proposes to modernise the Welfare State in much the same way as it plans to modernise the State itself. Since 1979, Social Security spending in real terms has tripled. This is not because benefits have become more generous. On the contrary, annual uprating of unemploymenmt related benefits was disengaged from average earnings 15 years ago. Is it the result of some benign "benefits take-up campaign"? The opposite is true, as the Government revels in campaigns to stop people claiming. The truth is that £15bn a year is paid out in benefits which reflect the growth in:
* benefits to the "visible" unemployed currently 1.7 million claimants (on a comparable basis it was 1 million in 1979);
* the growth in single parents having to rely upon benefits which have doubled;
* long term sickness and incapacity benefits to the "camouflaged" unemployed which have tripled from 574,000 to 1.8 million since 1981 - not because more people are sick and disabled but because these benefits have become a proxy for mainstream unemployment benefits;
* in-work benefits like Family Credit and Housing Benefit which have more than doubled.
Now, 18% of all households in Britain - more than 4.5 million individuals of working age, live in workless households. Twenty years ago the comparable figures were just 6.5% of households comprising 1.2 million people.
So if Labour wins, thereís a lot of work to be done. Not just because of the scale of the problem but because of the huge public expectations of Labour. And because of the sheer complexity of untangling the mix-up of earnings and benefits and the archane rules which create barriers and disinicentives within the bnenefits system itself.
Looking forward to May 2nd, Labourís proposals raise some awkward questions because, as they say, the devil is in the detail. We are not niggling about small things here. Shadow Ministers are rightly trying to paint their pledges in the broadest brush whilst realising that much of the "colouring" lies in the detail (apologies for torturing the metaphor). And a Labour Government will shortly have to operationalise their pledges, sort out many of the technical details and square-off some of the proposals which could undermine their greater ambitions: Is the Employment Service capable of delivering Labourís programme? how to avoid mixing up guidance with benefits policing? what is the future of YT? should there be a more substantial programme for the long term unemployed? and what about TfW?
Two potential problems loom. Firstly compulsion. Eradicating youth unemployment is a bold commitment. But if it is only possible to achieve this inspiring vision by compelling young people to participate, then it will crumble away. Bob Marshall on page ? says from his experieince of Glasgow Works - one of the protoypes for Labourís "Neighbourhood Match" - that these schemes must not stigmatise the unemployed. They must be like the real labour market and not be seen as "last resort" jobs. That means "no compulsion, and no benefits sanctions".
The second problem is "churning". Labourís programme relies heavily upon subsidies to employers to recruit the unemployed.Without the strictest safeguards this could just rotate or churn the unemployed from one subsidised job to another, punctuated by a spell of unemployment. Immediately after the election, the Unemployment Unit will publish a report showing how the Australian identified and tried to counteract this phenomena.
Unemployment is a big deal for Labour. For a party sometimes being accused of being "policy-lite" its 5 election pledges are politically symbolic "touchstone" policies. They other 4 - which are also very precise and measurable - are:
* cut class sizes to 30 or less for under 7s;
* reduce hospital waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients;
* fast track punishment for persistent youth offenders by halving the time between arrest and sentencing;
* cut VAT on fuel to 5% and not to increase income tax rates.
With Labourís key strategists now discreetly thinking beyond election day, their deepest fear is of support ebbing away following the election. The mood of optimism could be punctured by any failure with a flagship policy. Labour has one chance only to get this right.