There's a lot of concern just now around extremely right wing policies being trotted out at the Conservative Party conference. But how seriously should we take them? How seriously are they intended? And is there a danger that, in steeling ourselves for the worst, we put ourselves in a position where we will too-willingly accede to things that don't seem quite as bad?
With their pre-election promises to protect the NHS and to generally be kind and caring, the Conservatives have been accused of being wolves in sheep's clothing. A savvy wolf, however, has more than one disguise. What's more, it may dress as a lion for more than one reason - to subject the sheep to a different kind of illusion or to make an impression on other wolves. Right now, the Tory Party conference is a battleground in which every wolf is trying to look tougher than the others, scenting the blood of a weak leader and warring over the direction the party might take. This has led to policy proposals that have more to do with machismo than political or economic viability.
Let's take a closer look at a few of those proposals. Firstly, the idea that some people (variously "the unemployed" and "those who are out of work") should have their benefit entitlement gradually reduced if they fail to find work within set periods of time. This may at first sound like a reasonable way to treat the long term unemployed (rather less so if it includes, say, people who are too severely disabled to work), but it rests on the presumption that they are unemployed by choice. If indeed some are (and research suggests this group is small), that still leaves at least two other groups - those who live in areas where there is no work, and those who are effectively unemployable due to lack of skills. The former group can be expected to grow in size with the removal of housing benefit from younger people forcing them back into their parental homes and making it effectively impossible for them to migrate to areas where their prospects might be brighter (something which will also be damaging to employers). In neither case will the prospects of these people gaining employment be increased by reducing their financial means, as this will not only restrict their mobility further but will make it harder for them to dress and present themselves in a way likely to impress prospective employers, as well as making it harder for them to engage in training programmes. In short, whilst it may function as a political distraction from the real problems facing the country, it is economic nonsense. Its political advantage can exist only in the short term as sooner or later high unemployment figures are going to reach a point where they stop being seen as a consequence of inherited economic crisis and start being seen as a consequence of a Conservative government. No matter how desperate things may be, it's better not to shoot that albatross.
Speaking of increasing the unemployment figures (or at least changing people's perception of them), there's the proposal that everybody should be obliged to work for thirty five hours per week, with pert time workers obliged to take on extra hours or find second jobs. The logic behind this one is encapsulated in Ruth Davidson's speech, in which she made clear that she thinks of economic contributions only in terms of income tax, with no conception of the importance of the informal economy. To put it simply, many people in long term part time work are in that position because they have other commitments. If work obligations (under threat of the withdrawal of benefits) mean that they can no longer pick up their children from school or tend to the needs of their elderly parents, etc., the state will have to step in, at considerably increased cost. Then there are those who work part time because they are too ill to work full time. I'm in that bracket. Just now, if asked if I'm fit for work, I'll say yes (though actually even Atos would most likely rule otherwise); I can write and I am able to make some money that way. But if 'fit for work' came to mean being fit, every week, to do at least thirty five hours, I would have to say no (the physical stress of trying would probably kill me within a month); so I and many people like me would be forced to drop out of work altogether, costing the state more in benefits, reducing our economic input, wasting our talents and making many of us miserable into the bargain - for no gain. And then, of course, there is the fact that there simply isn't enough work around to sustain everybody like this. If the government wants people in this position to be more economically active, the secret is not to demand an impossible increase in hours but to push for an increase in wages.
How do we increase wages? At base, by ensuring that employees are properly valued and that they understand the value of their labour. In contrast to this, George Osborne has proposed that employees agree to waive certain rights in return for shares in the companies for which they work. This is an interesting one. Many people have, understandably, rushed to criticise the erosion of rights (which encourages a rush to the bottom), but even some of them would probably agree that employee-owned companies are a fantastic way of promoting responsible Capitalism (as per the Japanese model). One wonders if Osborne has linked the two in order to toxify the latter. Many Conservatives would traditionally have supported it, but of late the party has increasingly moved away from its focus on supporting aspirational working people. Osborne may think he can sidestep EU red tape by persuading employees to give up their rights voluntarily; the legal reality is likely to be rather different. And there is one other key problem with this policy - the fact that in a recession, when apparently stable companies are going to the wall on a regular basis, employees signing such deals can have no guarantee that the shares they settle for will retain any value at all.
What's likely to come of all this? When the lion sheds its skin, it's all too easy to relax and think, well, it wasn't a wolf after all - it won't maul me too badly. So if we see less drastic benefit reductions that target only those on Jobseekers' Allowance; if we see only a subset of those in part time work forced to take on extra hours; and if we see employees effectively stripped of their rights by being legally disempowered (ref. the ongoing cuts in legal aid) rather than seeing the laws changed outright, a party which had a wolf's agenda from the outset will seem positively ovine.
Meanwhile, David Cameron should be as wary as the rest of us. As teeth are bared in Birmingham, he's in danger of looking woolly to his erstwhile friends.