Trade Unions, street marches, and ConservativeHome’s 10 Immoral Commandments

It never ceases to amaze me quite how uncharitable people at all points on the political spectrum can be toward those who don’t happen to share their perspective. Such tribalism isn’t the exclusive preserve of those who occupy any one part of the political terrain. And there’s quite a bit of it about at the moment.

I was mooching around on a couple of right wing blogs yesterday. The overriding narrative regarding the day’s demonstrations was pretty clear. They were being written off as nothing more than the work of lazy public sector trade unionists seeking to protect their non-jobs, which are funded by those hard working tax payers who work in the private sector. It’s all about self-interest.

Yet, the numbers turning up in London and the social composition of the marchers make that position barely credible. Whatever it was, it wasn’t simply a march of disgruntled and self-interested trade unionists scared of the dole queue.

There is more than a touch of projection in these self-interest arguments. It would appear that some on the right have difficulty comprehending that some of those they disagree with are motivated by genuine concerns that valued and demonstrably valuable services are being decimated and that this will have a negative impact on others, not themselves.

The social diversity of those walking the streets yesterday with placards may well be the strength of the march. It is hard to write off simply as a narrow sectional interest. But equally it is probably its weakness. Beyond a general objection to the government’s programme of cuts, the diversity of its constituents means that its objectives are less than clear. The absence of a credible alternative agenda is a fundamental weakness.

I was intrigued by the attempt by Tim Montgomerie at ConservativeHome to frame the position of what he refers to as the ‘selfish’ Left in terms of 10 Immoral Commandments. What is striking about the approach is the extent to which it is built on incomprehension, caricatures and simplifications – if not misrepresentations – to achieve a particular end. Of course it is. But, in my naivety, I always hope that our public political discourse should aspire to something better.

Going through each of the 10 points in turn would take too long, but I’ll comment on three of them:

‘This generation should continue to borrow without concern for the next’

Today’s marchers may have been campaigning for ‘no cuts’, but they weren’t all from the political left. And, more importantly, they weren’t being offered ‘no cuts’ by any of the main political parties. Labour played its economic hand poorly when in government – and Conservatives did nothing to prevent them – and Labour have played the game pretty disingenuously over the last few months. I’m sure they know it. But they were going into the 2010 election proposing seriously unpleasant cuts of their own. Ed Miliband’s position on the platform yesterday seemed decidedly precarious. Unless he is going to own up to the necessity to make cuts he is obliged to be rather vacuous and vague. On the other hand, the government rhetoric – which talks about the country’s credit card being maxed out, for example – is facile in its attempt to draw an analogy between household accounts and the national accounts. Macroeconomics is much more complicated than balancing your cheque book at the end of the month, and considerably more uncertain. And there are always alternatives. The markets demand a credible plan, not this particular plan.

My own position, for what it’s worth, is that nothing I’ve seen since the General Election has changed my view that the Liberal Democrat’s original stance on the deficit was fundamentally the right one. The important debate is surely whether the right things are being cut. And that debate hasn’t really happened. Some of the cuts being made are clearly going to cost more in the long term or be entirely counter-productive. The government’s haste means that elements of the programme are not so much surgery as butchery.

‘Let’s protect those in work even if it means employers can’t afford to recruit’

It would appear to be an article of faith among parts of the British right that employers should have as much discretion over the terms and conditions upon which they employ staff as possible and that this increases their willingness to employ more workers. We can see this view reasserting itself strongly in some of the measures put forward in the budget and current moves to water down Health and Safety at Work regulations. This has always struck me as highly problematic. The idea that it is an unaffordable luxury for workers to be treated with dignity and flexibility at work and to work in environments that are safe seems to me to be outrageous. It is a human rights issue. It is also an argument that places most of the cost of cleaning up the mess – eg. hospital treatments, disability payments following industrial injuries – on the taxpayer. Viewed holistically, it is not self-evident that incurring the costs of prevention in the workplace, rather than passing them on to the general taxpayer as the cost of sorting things out, is a bad strategy. Similarly, the minimum wage is a popular policy and one which reduces the requirements for in-work assistance to deliver an acceptable standard of living. And, contrary to the received narrative, the evidence that a minimum wage reduces employment is not at all overwhelming. Implementing a minimum wage, however, does force companies to look for mechanisms other than suppressing wages – ie. genuinely increasing technical efficiency – in order to remain competitive.

‘Poorer taxpayers should pay for graduates to enrich themselves with free university education’

This implies that, first, the only beneficiaries of a highly qualified workforce are the graduates themselves and, second, that it is a straight transfer from poorer taxpayers to graduates. The argument is weak on both counts. There are strong external effects to a highly qualified workforce: it is of benefit to society as well as the individual being educated. And if one views the issue longitudinally, rather than cross-sectionally, then the typical graduate will pay much more in tax across a working life so in a very real sense they can be seen as contributing more. These would be the reasons why most other developed countries have been investing more in higher education rather than cutting state funding as a way out of current economic difficulties.

The country faces a hugely challenging time. We already knew that was the case in the economic sphere. It is becoming increasingly clear that the social consequences of attempting to deal with the deficit will be equally unpleasant. The spurious arguments flying around don’t really help the quality of the debate. Exercising executive power is a great responsibility and needs to be treated as such. I feel there is a credibility gap for the Government here. The government has done a poor job of demonstrating any empathy with those who are about to suffer. They have tried to pass the buck.  There have been claims that the impact will be more modest than will be the case. There has been some obvious sleight of hand. There is no sense that – as fully paid up members of the professional political elite – they have any real appreciation of the damage that will be done in both the short term and the long term. They lack any credibility when they claim they do. All that many can see – perhaps not entirely fairly – is crocodile tears.

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