Magazine article The Spectator

The Road from Compassion Leads Nowhere. Better Take the Road from Unfeeling

Magazine article The Spectator

The Road from Compassion Leads Nowhere. Better Take the Road from Unfeeling

Article excerpt

The government had some good fortune on Wednesday. The latest unemployment figures showed another sharp fall, further heightening the contrast between Britain and the rest of the European Union. At a press conference held to proclaim the good news, Michael Heseltine insisted that jobs ought to be an election issue. Though he may well fail to make them so, he was right to try.

The Tories' record on jobs and their strategy for jobs prove two points. The first is that the past 18 years have been a success; the second, that there are crucial differences between new Labour and old Major. Britain used to have one of the worst labour markets in the advanced world. A combination of dominant trade unions, cowed employers and cack-handed government intervention ensured that our productivity levels were much inferior to our competitors'. The only reason that the nominal unemployment figures were not substantially higher in the Sixties and Seventies was the prevalence of redundant jobs and subsidised jobs on a scale unprecedented outside the Soviet empire. Much of the notional increase in unemployment in the early Eighties was caused by the elimination of those non-jobs.

How different everything is today. No area of British life has changed so radically as the labour market, which is easily outperforming Germany and France and almost ready to vie with the United States and Japan. The Left would have us believe that this has been achieved by job insecurity, part-time work and sweatshop wages; not so. The economist David Smith has recently demonstrated that average rates of job tenure and turnover have hardly changed in 20 years, while the numbers of those working part-time rose far more rapidly in the Fifties than in the Eighties or Nineties. Moreover, despite the United Kingdom's relatively low levels of unemployment, in most of the rest of the EU there is a far higher proportion of the workforce in temporary employment. There has been a marked increase in job insecurity among two professional groups who have a disproportionate influence on the debate: journalists and academics. This may explain why so much of that debate has been based on misleading assertions.

Nor is there any truth in the sweatshop wages allegation. On average, real wages in this country are rising healthily, as are living standards. If current rates of improvement are maintained, Britain could surpass both Germany and France within a few years.

There are low-paid jobs and low-paying employers. But is that undesirable? This is where there is a basic, instinctual difference between Right and Left. The Left seems compassionate; the Right, unfeeling. But the road from compassion leads to higher unemployment. The road from unfeeling leads to jobs and prospects.

To the Right, a job is something you retain by offering goods people want to buy at a price they are prepared to pay. So when a right-winger hears about some young lad working for a rough-tongued boss who pays him 2.20 an hour for a 50-hour week, his immediate response will be, `At least he's gaining experience, and the best way of recommending yourself to an employer is to have a job already.' To the Left, however, a job is an entitlement. `How would you like to work for 2.20 an hour?' a left-winger would say: `Where are the shop stewards, the inspectors and the regulators who should be helping that poor lad? Thatcher may have suppressed them, but Labour will use Europe to bring them back.'

If social chapters, minimum wages, workin-time directives et al. …

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