The closure of Longbridge is just what the Prime Minister needed

John Rentoul
Sunday 17 April 2005 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Five thousand job losses in the West Midlands? Just what Labour's election campaign needed. That may seem unduly cynical, even tasteless, but the bad news from Longbridge can only help Tony Blair. However unfortunate redundancy is for the families concerned - and Labour politicians have been punctilious in prefacing nearly every sentence with expressions of sympathy - the story helps the Government in two ways.

First, it paradoxically reinforces Labour's reputation for economic competence. Arguments about whether Stephen Byers, when he was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, was right to push MG Rover towards the Phoenix consortium five years ago no longer matter. The simple message from Longbridge is that Labour doesn't bail out lame ducks. Never mind that the Government has no choice because of European competition rules. Labour is now a party that works with economic reality rather than trying to defy it. That was what was wrong with the party in the 1980s: everyone knew Margaret Thatcher was right when she said that governments were not good at running commercial enterprises. She became unpopular because, although she was right, she was heartless. Hence the public excess of ministerial compassion, with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer making their second mercy dash to Birmingham in a week, and the prompt and generous opening of the public purse.

Second, the collapse of MG Rover draws attention to the challenge of competing in a global economy, a question to which Labour seems to have better answers than the other parties. The most extraordinary response to the news of redundancies was Michael Howard's. He and Charles Kennedy both said that the Government should have acted sooner. Baroness Thatcher's successor as Tory leader was arguing for more and earlier state intervention in industry than Labour. Of the curious inversions of politics, that is one of the most piquant. Thatcher once expressed her ambition to see British politics more like American, with the two main parties committed to capitalism. She has achieved that all right, and now it is her own party more than Labour that wants to buck the market. Howard's response was modified all day on Friday, and he sounded more like a Thatcherite by attacking the Government for stifling British industry with over-regulation. The trouble is, no one thinks that Rover was brought down by red tape.

People are more likely to be sympathetic to the Labour message, which is that job security in a competitive world economy depends on skills. The Blair-Brown response has been pitched just right. Taxpayers do not want their money spent on lost causes, but they do not like heartlessness. They are willing to see their money spent helping the unemployed find new jobs. There was hardly a squeak about the £6.5m to pay the wages for another week while talks staggered on. Even a doubtful loan of £100m to ease the deal with the Chinese, which Blair did not advance in the end, would have been fine.

This is all part of a larger story. Last Wednesday, the latest jobs figures were published. Unemployment rose by 29,000 in the three months to February. Why wasn't there a fuss about that? Surely that ought to be even more damaging to Labour's campaign than the loss of 5,000 jobs in Birmingham? The reason it wasn't was that it was more than offset by the rise in the number in work by 148,000 over the same period. The success of the labour market is pulling in people who were previously labelled "economically inactive". The ability of the labour market to absorb extra workers means that the prospects for the Longbridge 5,000 are probably about as good as they could be.

(Some people may be puzzled, too, that the headline total unemployment figure is now 1.4 million, rather higher than the one million that was so sensitive when "Labour Wasn't Working" in 1979. But that reflects the greater honesty with which the figures are compiled nowadays - 1.4 million includes everyone looking for work. The figure roughly comparable with that of 1979 is 828,700, the number out of work and claiming benefit. What matters above all is the record level of employment.)

The paradox of the end of Rover, therefore, is that it emphasises Brown's success in managing the economy. It has helped to cement the big surprise of the Labour campaign, which is the extent to which Blair and Brown are working together (and not just claiming to do so). Partly because of the endless speculation about the tensions between the two, that combination has proved popular. That simultaneously strengthens the Labour campaign and tightens Brown's grip on a third-term Labour government.

Ultimately, there are only two election themes. As one Westminster wit put it when Labour's election slogan was unveiled in February, it was as if Trevor Beattie, Labour's ad man, had given Alan Milburn, the campaign co-ordinator, a presentation on the basics of electioneering. "You can either run with Time for a Change or Forward Not Back," Beattie must have said. Milburn chose "Forward Not Back" and then must have left before Beattie could explain that this was the brief, not the slogan. This odd theme is apt, because the form is a verbal tic of Blair's that goes back a long way. I was struck when I interviewed him in 1994 that he described Gordon Brown as a "big person not a small person". If it gets any worse he will start to greet people: "Hello, not goodbye. My name is Tony, not Gordon. Today is Sunday, not Monday."

But for present purposes Forward Not Back is simple and effective. It could have been "More of the Same", or "Better the Devil you Know", but the point is that there is no sense among the British electorate that this is "Time for a Change", as it clearly was in 1979 and 1997. That is why the Conservative pitch is so fragmented. Howard's manifesto is a list of grievances not a programme for government. The Tory election campaign is in the English grand reactionary tradition of doomed protests going back at least to the Pilgrimage of Grace through to the modern Countryside Alliance. It is a spasm of grumbles that does not amount to a plan for change so much as a yearning for a better yesterday.

Thus Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Patricia Hewitt seem, in the way they have dealt with Rover, to have a grasp on how to promote job security in the future. The carping Tory tone seems only to be looking for someone to blame.

The launch of the Labour manifesto, and the wordiness of the manifesto itself, were intended to convey solidity and managed to convey only vacuousness, in the way New Labour's curiously flat presentational skills so often do. The collapse of Rover and the serious response to it of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor conveyed solidity and depth in a way that no devices of modern communications could.

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