Over the last few days I have been watching with interest announcements from this year’s Trade Union Congress. In recent years about the only memorable event to occur at the TUC was Tony Blair’s much-praised farewell speech. Other than the odd annoying postal or rail strike our lives are rarely affected by union action. In fact the most successful strike I can think of, which had a genuine impact of my life, was the fuel protest at the turn of the Century and that wasn’t even officially organised by unions.
However this happy detente in labour relations looks set to end abruptly in 2010.
The militant tone of this year’s Congress cannot be overlooked. While on the one hand claiming that the “recession is not over” the TUC also backed a plan for industrial action in the event of public sector cuts. Slashing the deficit is going to be the defining issue of the next Government. Achieving this without widespread social unrest looks a distant dream.
I can understand the arguments for “spending our way out of a recession” but this overlooks the critical fact that going into 2007 our nation was already taxed to the hilt and the deficit had already spun out of control. Since the bailout of the banks this precarious situation has worsened substantially and that is not even taking into account plummeting tax revenues thanks to rising unemployment and terrible trading conditions for companies.
Given that we are now living through perhaps the greatest economic experiment ever attempted, the total absence of slack in our economy means we are all going to have to make sacrifices to give the measures attempted any chance of success. The alternative is unthinkable.
And it is with this in mind that I was encouraged by some of the headlines I caught about Gordon Brown’s speech at the Congress.
The statement “the tough truth about the hard choices” sounded like even our Prime Minister, who has always appeared to be ideologically-fixated on hosing the public sector with cash, had come to recognise the perils we face after a decade of profligate Government.
Then I read his speech.
The headlines were great, but the detail was a great disappointment.
Think about Obama’s address to Congress last week. It is certainly true that Obama has an incredible flair for oratory, but when he spelled out his vision for healthcare reform in the States, no-one was left in any doubt as to the direction he planned to take.
Brown’s speech in contrast was contradictory at best and downright misleading at worst.
He claimed that thanks to the initiatives this Government has employed “500,000 jobs had been saved” and “22million people have benefited from tax changes”. The basis for these claims was not offered and, let’s face it, their credibility is questionable.
When it came to talking about specific measures to combat the recession, the best he could muster were 21,000 apprenticeships in the public sector, 20,000 new houses and 55,000 young people guaranteed university or work placements. With unemployment now at 2.47million and likely to continue to rise well into next year these stimulus measures are paltry at best and certainly do not justify the size of our national debt.
Moving onto tax rises, Brown announced some very specific measures he will introduce if he gets the chance. These include a 0.5% rise in National insurance, a 50p tax band for high earners as well as a reduction in tax relief for this group. Such measures are bound to win support from core Labour voters and were clearly meant to pacify any criticism from TUC members when Brown moved onto the thorny issue of the day — namely spending cuts.
Not that he needed to bother of course. When it came to addressing the need for cuts all he had to say was;-
“Labour will cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes and cut lower priority budgets. But when our plans are published in the coming months people will see that Labour will not support cuts in the vital front line services on which people depend….
I say when we came in in 1997 we faced huge constraints to get the debt down, and we chose the right priorities; we created the minimum wage , created sure start for children improved schools immediately ended the neglect of the NHS and created the new deal that has helped two million people . We did it because we chose the people’s priorities – each of us working towards realising the talents of all.”
So according to this logic the rich will be taxed, efficiencies will be found, services will be preserved, new programmes will be introduced and the debt will be reduced. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
My plan during the same period will be to start dating Megan Fox, playing upfront for Arsenal, attempting my first moon landing and single-handedly solving the Middle East Crisis. I won’t bore you with the details of how exactly I am going to achieve all this, but we obviously live in a World where plans don’t need details and boundaries are not defined by restrictions of resources.
Perhaps I am being unfair as we are yet to see Labour’s specific plans, but whatever they manage to produce selling Sterling in 2010 looks like a strategy bound to succeed.