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Wednesday, November 16, 2011 

"This country really is fucked, isn't it?"

Earlier in the year I had the pleasure of seeing Simon Munnery's latest show, which he performed to about 25 of us in the salubrious location of a cafe masquerading as a comedy venue. Feeling obliged to say something to him after what must have been a discouraging turnout, I mentioned his appearance on Newsnight a few weeks before (which sadly it seems has not made it onto YouTube), appearing on the no panel for the programme's AV debate. Presumably Munnery had been invited to appear to add some levity to the proceedings, but the invited audience had been so flummoxed by this non-politician's idiosyncratic, surreal approach that they seemingly just turned off when he said anything, which for a stand-up comedian is never a good thing. After he had jokingly apologised for his dying, he related what had happened afterwards: Greg Dyke had also been on, and with Jeremy Paxman got onto discussing the economic situation. Paxman's succinct distillation as a rhetorical question was, and I apologise to all concerned if my memory has paraphrased his remark slightly, "this country really is fucked, isn't it?"

If it wasn't then, it certainly looks that way now. We might not be quite in the same state as either Italy or Greece, with technocrats installed in government, or forced into the austerity Ireland is having to bear, but the latest unemployment figures and the corresponding Bank of England forecast of 1% growth next year are bad enough.

This ought, on the surface, to be scaring the Conservatives silly. Their plan, buffeted somewhat on not winning an overall majority, was predicated around bringing the deficit down swiftly enough by the next election to begin cutting taxes overall, the "sharing the proceeds of growth" so dutifully promised by George Osborne before the neo-liberal bubble well and truly burst. While there was enough leeway left in Osborne plans for him to still claim to have eliminated the structural deficit by the election, even if he didn't quite hit his 2014/15 target, if we continue to have low growth beyond next year then that looks increasingly unlikely. This leaves him either in the quandary of rowing back on his supposedly unalterable plans, or cutting even further in order to reach them. The hope was that by cutting early the pain would be got through by 2015, leaving it just a memory and the Tories unaffected at the ballot box, or even, in their wildest dreams, boosted and thanked for securing a recovery with a rebalanced economy.

That this situation doesn't seem to be yet unduly worrying many Tories is perhaps explained by the solutions some of them are proposing. A couple of weeks back the Beecroft report recommended abolishing unfair dismissal legislation altogether, something quickly stamped on by the Lib Dems. Now there's Dominic Raab arguing for much the same in a Centre for Policy Studies document (PDF) subtitled ten regulatory reforms to create jobs, one of which predictably involves making it easier to err, sack people.

Much along the same lines is the latest innovation under the government's work experience programme, where jobseekers who express only an interest in the scheme find that they then can't back out without at the least having their benefits docked. This seems to be providing the nation's major retailing corporations with free labour, with the only onus on them to at least provide the offer of an interview at the end of the placement. Chris Grayling deserves an award for his double-speak as quoted by the Graun:

It is not mandatory but, once someone agrees to take part, we expect them to turn up or they will have their benefits stopped.

Seeing as many politicians make use of interns in a similar fashion, it's perhaps not surprising they consider this to be a perfectly acceptable state of affairs.

You might be forgiven then for thinking that the absence of any plan for growth or any sign of a Plan B should things get even worse, as they conceivably could should the Eurozone fracture completely, is in fact part of a wider political scheme. Just as some of the loonier out there felt that the Tories should go cap in hand to the IMF as soon as they won power, it's not completely fantastical to think that by doing next to nothing they can then administer the true shock medication as suggested above. Far more likely to pass the Occam's razor test though is that just as in the early 80s, the Tories seem to regard unemployment, especially among the young, as being an acceptable price for others to pay for their policies. Their gamble, always an extremely long shot, that the private sector would be able to create more jobs than those shed in the public sector has come up short. The utterly fatuous blaming of the crisis in the Eurozone for jobs that were being lost up to September when unemployment is a lagging indicator is yet another indication that the government seems to think the public are cretinous imbeciles.

The lack of Tory discontent doesn't however explain the failure of the Liberal Democrats to speak up. True, Lord Oakeshott as usual made clear his unhappiness, and Vince Cable refused to follow the execrable Chris Grayling in blaming the unemployment figures on the Eurozone, but the forming of the coalition has deprived us of a third political party offering different policies to those of the big two. Labour's plans, which are to cut only slightly less harshly, are the kind offered by opposition parties that know they'll never be enacted: the bonus tax would be unlikely to work a second time round as bankers have had the time to set-up the usual avoidance schemes should it be repeated, while they don't even suggest a reinstatement of the guarantee of a job for every young person out of work for over 12 months, as they previously did. An alternative is desperately needed, and as yet no one is offering one.

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