Jobs, homes and wages: Questions still to be answered

A Croydon-based economics commentator has issued a coruscating critique of the conference speech given in Manchester this week by Labour leader Ed Miliband, just months before his party faces an election which, if they win, will make him Prime Minister.

Did Ed Miliband offer a real alternative in his last party conference speech before a General Election?

Did Ed Miliband offer a real alternative in his last party conference speech before a General Election?

“‘Together we can’, was the phrase used by Miliband repeatedly. Trouble is, when applied to Miliband and Balls, it means ‘Together we can … come across as contradictory and confused’,” Andrew Fisher wrote this week for the Left Economics Advisory Panel – or LEAP (see what they did there?).

Miliband’s speech “…was long, heavy on rhetoric and contained some of the worst devices in modern political speech-making,” said Fisher.

“If you wade past the references to ‘Gareth’ and ‘Together’, the awkward phrasing at times, and ‘aren’t I clever at remembering my speech’ (oops) … yes, if you forget all that … then actually, buried deep in there, was a bit of substance.”

Given that one of Croydon’s three parliamentary seats, Central, will be playing a part in the determining the balance of power at next May’s General Election, the questions Fisher poses of Miliband and the Labour leadership raise many important issues for those seeking a real alternative to the Con-Lab consensus of the past 35 years.

And that’s even before the events at Westminster on Friday, when Miliband’s Labour backed the ConDem coalition’s move to take Britain to war in Iraq, for the third time in a quarter century. How did Einstein define insanity..?

Fisher’s analysis article questions Miliband’s stated Labour policy on…

1, Apprenticeships: Miliband said Labour would ensure as many school-leavers go into apprenticeships as go to university.

The reality in Britain in 2014 is that many 15- and 16-year-olds opt to hang on in full-time education in the belief – as promoted in the Bliar years – that to enter the job market, only clutching a degree certificate at the age of 21 will do.

An apprenticeship in shelf-stacking? Morrison's supermarkets are the biggest providers of workplace skills training in the country

An apprenticeship in shelf-stacking? Morrison’s supermarkets are the biggest providers of workplace skills training in the country

So youngsters persist through sixth forms or college in order to go to university to accumulate £27,000-worth of debt and take a three-year degree in pig enterprise management, or circus skills, or celebrity journalism (none of these are made up, honestly). What a start to a working life.

In his article, Fisher said of Miliband’s announcement, “The UK labour market seriously lacks skilled work, and this could be part of rebalancing the economy away from the increasingly low skill, low wage, low productivity one that Osborne’s policies have intensified.”

As Fisher highlights: “The largest single provider of apprenticeships is Morrison’s.”

This should have a special resonance in Croydon, where first the Whitgift Foundation-led Tories and now the Progress-dominated Labour council have embraced the £1 billion redevelopment of … a shopping mall.

The joint developers, Hammerson and Westfield, both declared at various times that their temple to consumerism will create 5,000 jobs. No where have they specified what form these jobs might take – though it is fair to surmise that many will involve stacking shelves or operating a check-out till. The kind of jobs which epitomise the low-skill society so beloved of the Tories.

Fisher wrote: “Labour has a real challenge in simultaneously improving both the volume and the quality of apprenticeships. Otherwise it’s just a way of driving down wages and allowing employers to undercut wages.”

2, The cost-of-living crisis: This is his “squeezed middle” thang. Miliband wants the wages of working people to grow at the same rate as the the economy as a whole.

Fisher welcomed the return to the political agenda of an industrial policy, and Miliband’s “… warm words on science and innovation budgets, the promise of a British investment bank, and building better vocational, skills-based, qualifications”.

But, he said, “How does a cap on public sector pay or on child benefit help tackle a cost-of-living crisis? And what of non-working families?” With shadow chancellor Ed Balls’ speech the day before, Fisher said, the Labour conference was sending out mixed messages.

3, Home ownership: Miliband pledged to meet demand for new homes in order to double the number of first-time buyers getting on the housing ladder.

“With London house prices averaging over 14 times the average London wage, and house prices across England now 12 times average earnings, this is a real crisis that has to be challenged,” Fisher wrote. “It gives private landlords an increasingly dominant position to use their capital live off the backs of others struggling just to keep a roof over their heads.

council houses building“With Ed Balls imposing a no borrowing rule even for capital investment, it seems that councils have no role in tackling the housing crisis. And so Labour’s policy seems to be based on simple supply and demand: flood the market with new homes and bring down prices?

“But how will private developers be incentivised to build substantially more than now? Does it mean a Land Value Tax to put pressure of developers to develop hoarded land, or tax breaks? Does it mean deregulating planning laws, opening up (some of) the Green Belt for development?

“And what does this do for those nowhere near able to buy – those in overcrowded, temporary accommodation, on council waiting lists?”

All valid questions on which – encouragingly – Croydon’s Labour councillors managed to offer some initiatives, within the confines that they face, with some of the policies they have introduced and discussed recently.

4, Low wages: Miliband proposes to transform the lives of the families of 2 million people by bringing them out of low pay.

In Croydon, one of the new council’s first moves was to make it – and its contractors – Living Wage employers. “Raising wages means lowering the taxpayer subsidy for low pay – the rising cost of tax credits and housing benefit because wages aren’t enough to make ends meet – something we’ve termed the ‘public ownership of living standards’,” Fisher wrote.

“Miliband is proposing to re-privatising these burdens to employers – and that’s a good thing.”

Fisher’s reservations here surround the policy vacuum, and contradictions in terms of announcements made by Balls. Labour, Fisher wrote, “…is pledged to maintain the public sector pay cap – at least in 2015-2016, and its commitment to raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour is nothing if not modest”.

Fisher’s belief in the power of the collective – and how that has been undermined at every turn over the last 35 years – shines through here.

“The most effective means of raising wages is to unshackle trade unions – and strengthen employment and trade union rights. Collective bargaining covered 85 per cent of workers a generation ago, but now covers less than one-third of workers – but Labour has been silent on trade union rights.

wind power“The sadly inaccurately nicknamed ‘Red Ed’,” Fisher wrote, “appears terrified of doing anything that benefits unions.”

5, Being more green: Miliband spoke of creating 1 million high-tech jobs in new green industries.

Only 4 per cent of total UK energy use is renewable, compared with an EU average of 12 per cent. Fisher wrote that Miliband’s proposals are “great and long overdue”.

But, he asked, “Who is doing this investment? Ed Balls says no borrowing (even for investment) and the UK has a long way to catch up just to be a world middle-of-the-road country, let alone a world leader.

“Something has to give, and if it’s Ed Balls, good.”

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1 Response to Jobs, homes and wages: Questions still to be answered

  1. davidcallam says:

    Mr Fisher’s fears of a Miliband-led government are academic.
    The more the general public see of Mr Miliband, the less they like him, according to an increasing number of opinion polls.
    Messrs Miliband and Balls are constructing their own suicide note. Labour’s slender lead in the polls will disappear in the weeks before the General Election to leave us, I regret to say, with another Tory-led coalition or a minority Tory government, propped up by Ukip with a confidence and supply agreement in return for an immediate EU referendum.
    And all because the Labour Party was so frightened of electing a social democratic leader that it turned in desperation to an unelectable geek.

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