Monday 2 February 2009

Was it meant to be 'British workers for British jobs'?

And would it matter if it was?

The 'British jobs for British workers' soundbite was always a high risk, unforced political error, as Andrew Grice detailed in his Independent column at the weekend. If it might not have rebounded quite as strongly as it has, politicians risk fuelling rejectionist politics of the left and right if they seem to promise things they can not deliver.

Gordon Brown should never have used the phrase. The reason went beyond the risk of appearing to pander to far right sentiment. The idea that Brown would advocate economic protectionism was still more unlikely.

Which reminds me that some of us who were suspicious of the phrase back in 2007 were told that the phrase was meant to be "British workers for British jobs". Indeed, that it is how it began, as the GMB conference in the Spring of 2007 (before being reversed by the party conference once Brown was premier in the Autumn), as The Telegraph reported at the time.

It is time to train British workers for the British jobs that will be available over the coming few years and to make sure that people who are inactive and unemployed are able to get the new jobs on offer in our country," Mr Brown told the GMB union.

John Kampfner has said that the reversed version may have arisen from misreading an autocue: that seems implausible to me. In any event, it was used more than once.

Of course, the etymological distinction is rather too subtle to make any political difference. Even Kampfner says he is "not sure I understand the difference". But, to the extent that anybody would notice, 'British workers for British jobs' could indeed have signalled a rather more Brownite and New Labour supply-side approach: the skills agenda to make sure workers are labour market ready, as the GMB speech itself made clear.

It was, in this sense, simply one reworking of how Bill Clinton first addressed the globalisation debate for the New Democrats: investment in skills is a very important policy, though insufficient in itself. Yet the political courage of Clinton's position at the start of the 1990s was that he would address head-on with blue-collar and union audiences the issue of what he was not going to promise, and why, in trying to reframe the debate and provide a different approach to either 'save the jobs' or 'let them drown'.

Now, there are certainly many difficulties in making a comprehensible public case for the essentially protective and supportive role of the enabling state in the global age. Seeking to cut through with misleading populist slogans will always make this dilemma worse.


Unknown said...

Matthew Taylor @ the RSA has an interesting piece on how we should reject authoritarian hierarchism.

Sunder Katwala said...

Paul Waugh of the Standard makes a similar point today about the reversal of the slogan, and also mentions the autocue theory among some Ministers, again sourcing John Kampfner's piece about this.