Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Lib Dems policy problems

As it's conference season and all, it's only proper to have a looksee. This blog is mostly focussing on foreign affairs, but for a change, a bit of UK domestic policy - specifically, the dole.

On coming to power, Labour made a number of changes to unemployment benefits, one of the best of which was the New Deal. The basic idea is simple - after a few months on the dole, you'd be sent on training courses to improve your employability and encouraged to do voluntary work / work expereience to bolster your CV. In fact, without doing this, technically you would become unable to claim benefit. At the same time, firms would be part-subsidised to employ New Dealers, thus lessening the drain on the state that continuing to fund people sitting on the dole would entail.

All very well and good, and a halfway decent system (should you buy into the concept of a welfare state, that is). The only trouble is it allows for no distinction between the unemployable layabout with no qualifications (and no interest in or hope of getting a job) and the kind of highly-qualified, experienced professional that may find themselves temporarily redundant. Sitting in a dole office being offered courses in basic MS Word, "keyboard skills" and the like is hardly relevant for someone who has spent the previous six years in an office, but has had a run of bad luck when it comes to finding work.

So, at their conference, the Lib Dems have announced their plans to scrap the New Deal. I personally wouldn't go so far as to say it's a "shambolic failure", although the statistics quoted by Paul Holmes (Liberal Democrat Shadow Minister for Work) certainly do seem to demonstrate that it needs a rethink.

Holmes notes that "Making people jump through unnecessary hoops in a 'one size fits all' system is not the way to tackle entrenched unemployment." Very true. But what are the Lib Dems' proposals going to be other than scrap it, and how are these plans going to tally with Lib Dem Shadow Chancellor Vincent Cable's assertion that "Economic discipline and credibility are essential. But we intend to balance these economic imperatives with greater social justice"?

It's all very well prioritising pensions, policing and education, but does this mean the little money there currently is being channeled towards helping people back to work is going to be redirected to pensioners who can no longer work? How will that help the economy, exactly? How does this tally with Cable's professed belief that "Without wealth creation there is no wealth to spread"? He then states "That is why I emphasise the traditional liberal message - from Adam Smith to today - that markets must be allowed to work; trade should be free; private enterprise should not be shackled by excessive regulation; and private and state monopolies should be opened up to competition." But subsidising private enterprise to help reduce unemployment figures, which is partly what the New Deal does, can surely only help stimulate business, not only by reducing outlay on salaries, but by getting private enterprise to provide on-the-job training and thus produce a new generation of skilled workers. What, if anything, do the Lib Dems propose to replace the New Deal with?

You see, the thing is I actually genuinely like the Lib Dems. Might even vote for 'em. But they, like the Tories, have a tendency to talk in very vague terms, making broad generalisations and identifying flaws in the government's policies without coming up with specific alternatives of their own. If they are going to succeed in their aim to overtake the Tories as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition they need to pull their fingers out in the remainder of this conference week and give a public dying to have an alternative to Blair a reason to vote for them.

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