Saturday, January 10, 2009

Jobs crisis threatens Brown's "New Deal"

Today's Journal column is the last to be illustrated n its print version by cartoonist Geoff Laws who is leaving the paper. He provided a great illustration of Gordon Brown injecting the arm of a stricken hospital patient while all the blood drained out of the other side. You'll have to buy the paper to see it, but if you read the column below you'll get the meaning.

Enjoy life outside newspapers Geoff - and don't stop eating the seared scallops.

First this week, some words of thanks. For all of the 12 years of this column’s existence, its words have been brilliantly illuminated by Geoff Laws’ wonderful cartoons.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and since that is the average length of the column, the old adage was never more apt than in the case of the long-running Linford – Laws partnership.

Geoff is now leaving the staff of The Journal– although he will still be contributing regular restaurant reviews to the paper – so today’s illustration will be his last.

I’m sure regular readers of the column will join me in thanking him for brightening up our Saturday mornings for so many years, and wishing him all the very best for the future.

And so without further ado to the politics. In my preview of 2009 last week, I ventured the possibility that the next 12 months may be rather difficult ones for Gordon Brown as the state of the economy worsens.

Well, nothing I have seen in the first full week of the New Year has done anything to dissuade me from that view.

Sure, the Prime Minister has come out fighting, as by now we would expect him to, with a whistlestop regional tour and a package of public works designed to create 100,000 new jobs.

But out there in the “real economy,” companies continue to go to the wall and jobs continue to go – not least in this region which on Thursday saw the loss of 1,200 posts at Nissan in Sunderland.

For the North-East, this is about as bad as it gets, short of the closure of the entire Nissan operation in Sunderland as was feared at various points in the late 1990s.

The car plant has long been emblematic of the “rebirth” of the region as a manufacturing centre after the painful demise of its coal and steel industries in the 1980s.

Its current plight illustrates the difficulties Mr Brown is facing not just in trying to mitigate the worst effects of the recession, but also in convincing the public that he is succeeding.

While he is desperately trying to give the economy a shot in the arm with his public sector job plans, the lifeblood continues to drain out of it in the shape of private sector job cuts.

The Prime Minister does, at least, have a clear strategy – to create and preserve British jobs amid predictions that in 12 months’ time one in 10 of us will be unemployed.

“I want to show how we will be able, though public investments and public works, to create probably 100,000 additional jobs over the next period of time in our capital investment programme – schools, hospitals, environmental work, transport,” he said last weekend.

Mr Brown even went so far as to suggest that combating the recession could be combined with the grand purpose of re-equipping Britain for the digital age.

“When we talk about the roads and the bridges and the railways that were built in previous time – and those were anti-recession measures – you could talk about the digital infrastructure at a period when we want to stimulate the economy,” he added.

It’s hardly surprising to hear Mr Brown talk like this. In a sense, he’s now in his political comfort zone.

If people sometimes think Mr Brown seems to be revelling in the economic downturn, it’s perhaps because it has opened the way to the kind of New Deal politics he has always believed in.

He’s been compared in much of the media this week to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who built America out of the Great Depression in the 1930s, although I seem to recall making that comparison myself a while back on these pages.

With President-elect Barack Obama being spoken of in similar terms, he is no doubt hoping that some of those comparisons – and some of that stardust – will rub off.

But while Mr Brown has certainly hit the ground running at the start of the New Year, the other two parties have not let been letting him have things all his own way.

David Cameron has launched a further bid to detoxify the Tory brand by talking about the need for “ethical capitalism,” a fresh twist on the old Blairite saw about economic efficiency and social justice going hand in hand.

It’s a brave, if somewhat belated attempt to tackle the perception of the Tories as the “do nothing” party, content to let laissez-faire economics and the recession run their inevitable course.

Meanwhile Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg decided to have a reshuffle, although it is unclear what, if anything, was achieved by this.

But to conclude this week, here’s a few further thoughts about Nissan together with a bit of a history lesson.

I alluded earlier to the fact that, in the late 1990s, there was a question mark over the entire future of the Nissan plant, but the issue back then wasn’t the state of the UK car industry – far from it.

No, it was the almost evangelical belief on the part of the plant’s Japanese owners that Britain – and more importantly, their own business - would be better off in the euro-zone where most of its markets were based.

The then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was known to be worried that contracts to build new models would go to Nissan’s European plants unless ministers made more positive noises about the euro.

Interestingly, it is not an argument that has been made this time around – but let’s just suppose that it were to be.

What would Gordon Brown do if a major British employer were to go to him and threaten to move tens of thousands of jobs to Europe unless Britain joined the single currency?

We saw in 2008 the impact that changes in economic circumstances can have, when the credit crunch turned the once-derided Bennite policy of bank nationalisation into the political flavour of the month.

The baleful prospect of a million UK job losses in the next 12 months could similarly turn the current conventional political wisdom on its head.

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James Higham said...

If people sometimes think Mr Brown seems to be revelling in the economic downturn, it’s perhaps because it has opened the way to the kind of New Deal politics he has always believed in.

But as you say, Paul, now is in no position to.

stephen rouse said...

All the best to Geoff - always did a great job with Paul's column along with a lot of other fantastic work for the Journal - and a really nice guy into the bargain

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