Friday, December 17, 2004

House Points

My column from this week's Liberal Democrat News:

Her Majesty's Ogre

There's only one question worth asking about work and pensions: "Chancellor, why in your first budget did you decide to take £8bn from pension funds every year?"

But Gordon Brown does not attend this question time. Let's avoid the cliché of saying that made Monday's session was Hamlet without the prince and call it Shrek without the ogre - not least because, as chief secretary to the treasury, that makes Paul Boateng the donkey.

In the green one's absence, we were offered a strange form of micro politics. We weren't just given the figures for individual constituencies that seem mandatory these days. (Coventry South 840 people have participated in the new deal for lone parents. And in Nottingham North there were 745 unemployed young people as at October 2004.)

No, we heard about individual people. So it was hello to Clare Robertson from Bulwell who, thanks to a variety of government schemes and subsidies, now has a job in administration. And hello to an unnamed lone parent who has gone through her work-focused interview, gained qualifications in literacy and numeracy, and found work as a receptionist.

Well done to both of them, but there is something odd going on. The last 25 years have seen the death of the idea that governments can manage the economy. Political parties used to solemnly debate whether they should aim for three or four or five per cent growth. Today, everyone agrees that Her Majesty's Ogre - sorry, that Gordon Brown's best act as chancellor has been to give up the power to set interest rates.

Yet there are no signs of government retreating from the world of work. In fact, it is entering it in more and more intimate ways. Unemployed people are now the subject of a vast therapeutic apparatus. One of the unknown receptionist's problems, said the minister Jane Kennedy, was that she lacked self-confidence, so the state moved in to cure her.

Listening to Labour ministers it's a wonder that anyone ever succeeded in getting a job before 1997. Where would the Industrial Revolution have been with their attitude? "I like this new 'steam engine' of yours, Mr Watt, but I doubt that any of our people will have the self-confidence to use it. Better stick to ploughing."

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