Leading article: The politics of recession makes for odd bedfellows

But policies will ultimately prove more significant than personalities
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The Independent Online

How distant all those paralysing rows between the Blair and Brown camps at the heart of Government seem now. The return of Alan Milburn – a politician not renowned in Westminster for his affection for Gordon Brown – to the political fray as a Government adviser on social mobility is the latest example of bridges being mended within the New Labour community. Old grudges have apparently been swept away by the economic emergency that has engulfed Britain. The Labour Party can now honestly say, for the first time in many years, that it stands full-square behind its leadership.

The political symbolism is likely to prove a boost for the Government, but whether this new-found unity in the Labour ranks will deliver any immediate and tangible benefits to members of the public whose livelihoods are under serious threat is, sadly, more doubtful. Mr Milburn is to chair a panel of industry leaders whose mission will be to devise ways to get children from disadvantaged backgrounds into the top professions such as the civil service, law and medicine.

A White Paper covering similar territory is expected tomorrow, and today will see the convening of a Government jobs summit, which the Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell, says will examine ways to prevent people falling into a vicious circle of joblessness.

Breaking down barriers to social mobility is, of course, a laudable aim. But it is hard to see much being achieved at a time when companies are processing redundancies. The focus of most firms at the moment is on firing, not hiring.

Similar pessimism inevitably attaches to the Government's jobs summit. New state resources for training, employment advice and incentives for companies to hire are all welcome, but their impact on the jobs market over the coming months is likely to be marginal. While economic activity is drying up and company profits are down, the flow of redundancies is inexorable.

Nor can efforts to give graduates paid work experience, another mooted Government initiative, compensate for the fact that tens of thousands of university leavers are unlikely to get a full-time job this year. None of these efforts are pointless, but we should beware of the Government's spin that they can make a substantial difference. The truth is that, in an open economy such as Britain's, only economic recovery can have a major impact on the jobs market.

This is where the real battleground will be in the new parliamentary session, beginning today: which party has the policies that will make this recession as short and shallow as possible? The Government has adopted an inflationary approach, arguing that fiscal caution translates into recklessness in such extraordinary times. The Conservatives are against a fiscal stimulus, warning that the Government's excessive borrowing will impede Britain's eventual recovery. Both parties believe that restoring the flow of credit to the economy is crucial, although they are squabbling over the best means to achieve that.

Mr Milburn's return, like that of Lord Mandelson last October, is yet more evidence that the politics of recession makes for some strange bedfellows. And it is surely welcome that the Government is at least united in its purpose. Yet we should not lose sight of the fact that it is likely to be policy, more than personality, that determines the ebb and flow of party political fortunes over the coming months.