Spirit of full employment returns to Labour's table

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IT IS, according to one trade union official, what American middle managers call a 'motherhood' - in other words, 'like motherhood and apple pie something no one can now possibly disagree with'. Suddenly full employment, a term all but banished under Neil Kinnock, is on every Labour MP's lips.

In Swansea last Sunday, Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor and an arch-moderniser, called for 'full and fulfilling employment'. On Thursday arch-traditionalist John Prescott, the employment spokesman, chose the unlikely occasion of the Prison Officers' Association conference in Plymouth to invoke the spirit of 1945 to create full employment.

To many Labour MPs the message is clear. One said: 'It means that we can put the issue of job creation back on the top of the agenda after the days of Neil Kinnock when full employment was synonymous with woolly headed nonsense.'

But does the rhetoric amount to any more than a political slogan, and is the consensus more than skin deep? Perhaps the best indicator that all is not harmony is the fate of Mr Prescott's submission to Brussels called Jobs and Social Justice. This document went to the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party last Wednesday ahead of planned release on Friday. There, according to its backers, minor changes were made; according to its opponents the document was 'filleted' by Mr Brown. On Friday a Labour press conference came and went with no sign of it.

When it is finally published, Mr Prescott's paper will highlight the 50th anniversary of the 1944 White Paper on employment. Then, the world was a very different place. Ernest Bevin's White Paper won overwhelming support in the Commons (including that of the MP for Darwen, a Captain Prescott). But there was criticism from Aneurin Bevan and from Manny Shinwell, then MP for Seaham, who argued: 'All that is asked for is a 'high and stable level of employment' . . . Is it 5 per cent, 8 per cent or 12 per cent unemployment?'

Many of the same questions remain today: but in a job market with more women and part- timers and where business is increasingly international.

In his speech to the Trades Union Congress last September, John Smith put full employment 'at the heart of Labour's vision', adding: 'Labour's economic strategy will ensure that all instruments of macro-economic management, whether it concerns interest rates, the exchange rate, or the levels of borrowing, will be geared to sustained growth and rising employment.' This, done against the background of his need to win one member one vote reforms at the Labour conference, won Mr Smith new friends in the unions.

But in a later interview in the Daily Mirror, Mr Smith added: 'I don't think a government can guarantee every person in the country a job. I don't think people would believe it if you said it. But one of the objectives of economic policy must be to get the highest number of jobs possible.'

Labour's modernisers believe this represented a deliberate shift after private polling for the leader of the Opposition showed that more than four-fifths of the electorate did not believe politicians who promised full employment.

What is one to make of recent pronouncements? The shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has made the modernisers' case, laying stress on full 'and fulfilling' employment. He highlights the importance of a skilled workforce, believing that the creation of low-paid 'Mcjobs' will not satisfy a workforce with higher aspirations.

But while there is broad agreement on the need for skills training, Mr Brown, as shadow Chancellor, is much more cautious with the economy than Mr Prescott. As one left-wing frontbencher put it: 'The argument is about taxation, public spending and to what extent we stimulate demand to get to full employment.'

For the shadow Chancellor it is vital that the electorate and the City do not equate job creation with economic recklessness. This is also rooted in political analysis, in a desire not to return to a boom/bust syndrome, and therefore to stress the need for 'sustained' growth.

This view is almost certainly shared by Mr Blair. His supporters expect very little daylight between his economic policy and that of Mr Brown once the leadership battle proper begins.

Mr Prescott's views are rather different. He and Robin Cook would like to see more money pumped into the battle against joblessness. Mr Cook sees himself as an unreconstructed Keynesian. Margaret Beckett, the deputy leader, also comes from the left of the party although, as shadow Chief Secretary, she restricted spending commitments.

Mr Prescott believes that policy has been driven by a Conservative agenda that has prioritised the control of inflation rather than job creation.

On the Walden programme last November he said that his ultimate aim was to cut unemployment to 700,000 but conceded that this could not be done in one Parliament. After 9 June the Prescott path to that goal will be made clear in a series of speeches. At that point Labour's new consensus may look a lot more fragile.

Missing link, Business, page 8