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Monday 6 April 2009

Fixing The Roof – Part 1

The Chileans have, apparently, embarrassed Pa Broon by talking about putting money aside in the good times. Music to the ears of David Cameron.

The Tories have put out what sound like straightforward, common sense messages on the economy: “fix the roof while the sun is shining” and the Thatcher hand-me-down of “living within our means”. But what do these snappy soundbites mean for Joe and Joanne Public?

The concept of “living within our means” carries an implicit criticism of the level of public spending: that Labour is doing too much of it, and the Cameron Tories would do less. So what does public spending buy, and what would it therefore buy less of under the ideas floated by the Tories?

Consider a middling size town like Crewe. Here, public spending provides places like Leighton Hospital: buildings, equipment, facilities are all provided. But most of all – and you just need a walk through the place for the point to register – that spending buys people. Put directly, it provides jobs. If there is to be significantly less of this spending, then less jobs will be provided. And, to paraphrase Calvin Coolidge, when many people are out of work, unemployment results.

Those doubting the result of public spending cuts need look no further than the early Thatcher years. Unemployment increased massively: the true maximum number is difficult to ascertain, as the basis on which the figures were calculated was changed, producing numbers lower than by using pre-1979 methods. Even with the revised basis for calculating jobless figures, that number peaked at well over three million.

What, then, of the concept of “fixing the roof while the sun is shining”? This makes an attractive soundbite, but the reality, in the immediate term at least, is a greater amount of unemployment. To “fix the roof” means that public spending – unless bolstered by higher borrowing and/or taxation – would have to be foregone. So the employment of those whose jobs would be bought by that public spending would also be foregone. The result, then, is less employment.

So these two ostensibly attractive Tory slogans have one direct and clear consequence: more people out of work. It would be refreshing to hear David Cameron admit this directly, but it is equally unlikely. Also, that reduction in jobs does not just affect the public sector, a subject to which I will return.

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