Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Labour's inevitable doom .....

It's not just the polls - this government is doomed by the fact that its policies simply won't work. The schools and the NHS are not getting better, don't mention transport, and the crime and asylum issues are being tackled in the traditional New Labour style by eye-catching initiatives and announcements, none of which will actually be implemented.

The economy is slowly worsening as more and more burdens are piled onto business, we become less competitive, and manufacturing jobs head off to Eastern Europe or the Far East. The increase in claims fostered by ambulance chasing solicitors has lead to huge insurance increases. Many small manufacturing companies are now operating illegally without insurance.

And much bigger than a man's hand is the pensions crisis, of which more later, and which will make the mis-selling scandals under the Tories look tiny by comparison.

A pity for Gordon Brown really. For two years he followed Ken Clarke's policies - remember the Prudent Chancellor ? Then the internet bubble-boom was on and he could undo the purse-strings a little. Then Labour won that all-important second term - and Prudence was put onto crack cocaine and made to work the streets. Suddenly all spending records were being broken and the Guardian's jobs pages were two feet thick - just as the stock market was halving its value.

In the Thatcher years the orthodoxy was that service industry jobs would replace manufacturing. But without a manufacturing base the service sector will inevitably move away in time. After all, what's it going to service ? No problem, says Randeep Ranesh in a Pollyanna-ish Guardian article, we'll just have to move on to the 'next wave of technology', aided by our 'superior infrastructure', education system, and 'technical know-how'. Well, none out of three ain't bad.

Just as many of Mrs Thatchers educational and economic reforms seemed designed to create a nation of Tesco shelf-stackers, so Mr Blair's fetish with information technology and the internet (about which he admitted he was almost totally ignorant - shades of Harold Wilson and the white heat of the technological revolution) brought the nation of call-centre operatives ever nearer.

Alas this was even less viable a long-term strategy than Mrs Thatcher's. You can't move the baked bean tins to Uttar Pradesh but you can move the call centre to Bombay or Delhi. Why pay a young school-leaver with her devalued GCSEs (and whose main life-motives are to get smashed and laid as frequently as possible) £10,000 when you can pay an Indian national, better educated and far better motivated, £3,000 to do a better job. Globalisation in the information age also means that many IT jobs will move to whereever the educated people are. The overall failure of "education, education and education" implies that this is unlikely to be Britain.

Stand by for a flood of outsourcing to India over the next few years. The only service industries to remain onshore will be those where the servicer has to be physically close to the consumer. Cleaners, masseurs and lawyers will be OK, but I.T. professionals will be hard hit. Pity - that's what I do for a living. Why can't I get the sidebars and links (or even the fonts) right on this site then ?

In future posts I'll look at crime, education, transport and asylum - but a word more about the pensions crisis. For years Britain's occupational pensions were the envy of Europe, but they have been made uneconomic by Brown's tax, increased longevity and the stock market collapse. The pensions holidays taken by employers, many of whom are still not contributing even now, haven't helped either. (Of course they should have built up surpluses to protect funds against a rainy day - but a bit of Tory legislative wizardry in the 1980s made it uneconomical to do so. Thanks, Nige.)

So what is the Government's response ? In case funds go broke, they'll set up a special pot of cash which can bail out the poor pensioners. Brilliant idea ! And where will the cash come from ? From a charge on the pension funds ! And if more funds fail as a result of the charge ? - presumably increase the levy on the funds which still have cash !

It's possible to imagine a pyramid-style scenario in which one fund after another collapses, increasing the levy on those left, until at last the best-run and most prudent funds, milked by levies to compensate other pensioners, finally go under - leaving their pensioners uncompensated.

Labour have added one more little straw to the pensions camel - the recently announced 'gay partnership' legislation, by which couples who bowl round the wicket will enjoy the taxation, inheritance and pensions benefits of married couples. Alright, ignore the tax benefits (there aren't any). If you believe biologists and sociologists, somewhere between three and five percent of the population take the other bus. If you believe gay campaigners like Stonewall or the NSPCC, the figure is more like twenty percent.

Either way, a largeish number of people who previously didn't qualify for a cut of the pensions cake will now do so, imposing a further burden on the funds. Of course, Jacqui Smith, bringing the same sure touch to Equality that she brought to Education, consulted widely with the pensions industry before the legislation, didn't she ? In your dreams.

But I look forward to the reaction of the delightful elderly couple featured prominently on the BBC, when they find out that the pensioners Minimum Income Guarantee, previously set at £98 for each of them, will now be £158 for a 'married couple' !

Of course there is one class of people whose pension provisions have never been better. Non-contributory, index-linked, not taxed by Gordon Brown, and best of all unaffected by stock market collapse, Robert Maxwells or anything short of World War III. Not only that, but the job itself is usually pretty secure. And it's all paid for by taxation - perhaps by that very taxation that is closing non-state schemes down across the country.

Step forward, Mr. Guardian-reading state employee ! Step forward, Lord Irvine of Lairgs !