If Margaret Hodge were a car, she'd be called in for a thorough service. If she were a Tesco employee, she'd be relegated to shelf-stacking and undergoing retraining in customer relations. But, hey, she's a New Labour minister, and so the chances are that further promotion and increased pension provision are probably around the corner. Along with Margaret Beckett, Ms Hodge is a politician with so few discernible skills for the job, it's laughable. Listening to Mrs Beckett on the radio the other morning I realised that she had waffled on about global warming for about five minutes without saying one thing of note. She sticks firmly to the party line, repeating word for word the script her minions have prepared on every occasion. I have never heard Margaret Beckett have an opinion about anything, so she's perfect cabinet material. Margaret Hodge, on the other hand, specialises in gaffes - the latest being her suggestion that MG Rover workers left jobless by when the company collapsed should take jobs at Tesco.
She was a controversial choice to be minister for Children, having run Islington council at a time when major child abuse was taking place in its care homes, and now Teflon woman revels in the role of Work and Pensions minister.
The continued career success of the two Margarets sums up the problem facing British industry. They are clearly unskilled but highly employable. For every 10 jobs lost in our manufacturing industries, eight are created in the public sector - hospital administrators, traffic wardens, environmental health inspectors and town planners. This government has increased the number of advisers, consultants and experts on its payroll exponentially, while thousands of jobs are lost to countries such as China and India where labour is cheap. Britain is becoming a country where we run supermarkets, hotels, tourist attractions and cafés, but we don't actually make anything. If anyone is foolish enough to try to set up a manufacturing business - be it furniture, clothing or even the bottling of chutney - they are inspected to within an inch of their life, required to fill in endless tax forms and meet all sorts of health and safety requirements. The time a boss can actually spend motivating his or her workforce and coming up withideas about how to produce and market a well designed product has drastically shrunk while bureaucracy dominates their lives.
The 6,000 people left jobless with the demise of MG Rover in April will soon increase as many of the suppliers who are owed £1.4bn by the car group collapse too. The "Phoenix Four" who rescued the company in 2000, and then took £40m from it, have not been quick to offer their former workers jobs in new businesses. Far from it. They have been conspicuously silent, as they sit at home counting their cash. Margaret Beckett may have exhibited all the gauche ineptitude we have come to expect, but she was only telling the truth. The new jobs on offer in Britain are in retail and leisure, and don't require apprenticeships. On the day that MG Rover went into administration in April, Birmingham City Council granted planning permission for the redevelopment of 55 acres of land once owned by the car manufacturer, which had been bought by property developers. They plan to turn the site into a medical centre, a park for new hi-tech businesses, a pub, and a huge supermarket. Guess who has expressed an interest? Tesco. All over Britain, the story is the same - huge tracts of land where once steel was produced, cars were assembled or glass and bricks manufactured are being turned into superstores, theme parks, offices and car parks.
Margaret Beckett described the labour market in the West Midland as healthy - and it is, if you want to be one of the 350 people working at the new Tesco store in Birmingham. Of the 6,000 former Rover workers, only 1,000 have found jobs and 2,000 are on training programmes; if that's healthy, then it's a good job Mrs Beckett is not running the National Health Service because she would probably start describing cancer as a new way to detox. The rise and rise of Tesco, to the point where £1 out of every £7.70 spent in Britain goes through its tills, is astonishing. With £2bn profit last year and a third of the nation's grocery budget, the chain is in danger of over-dominating the market. It doesn't see it that way - and a trip to any Tesco this weekend should confirm that chief executive Sir Terry Leahy is as responsible as anyone for the lack of manufacturing opportunities in Britain. Try buying anything that involves sewing at Tesco - it's all made by an Australian company. Clothing and cheap electrical goods come from the Far East. Asparagus and beans are flown in from Peru and Kenya.
Tesco pretends to offer choice - with its "finest" and "value" lines - but what it offers is the removal of any quirks, individuality and originality from the shopping experience. As Tesco expands, small greengrocers and butchers close, and the life is gradually sucked out of town centres. Of course Tesco offers convenience - but it most certainly does not offer cheap food. The Government needs to do more to help small businesses, and recognise that skilled workers bring more to our economy than shelf-stackers.
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Last week a church service attended by Rupert Murdoch marked the demise of Fleet Street as the home of the national press. Reuters, the last major new organisation in the City, has decamped to Canary Wharf. The occasion was marked by a lot of elderly white men reminiscing about the "good old days" when they all met at El Vino, spent the afternoon in the pub and never went home. Arriving in Fleet Street in 1969, I was soon initiated in its rules and rituals, spending hours in the back bar of El Vino where women were not allowed to stand at the bar and buy drinks. The King and Keys was full of Telegraph and Express senior figures quaffing beer all afternoon. A drinking club behind Ludgate Circus had an indoor golf driving range. The cartoonist Frank Dickens would slice the tops off champagne bottle with a carving knife. Good old days? Don't make me laugh - those years nearly pickled my liver and all I learnt was how to evade being groped and how to ignore sexist jibes. I didn't learn much about journalism but I honed the survival skills which stood me in good stead in the jungle.Reuse content