Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The problem of unemployment and the inadequate solution of workfare

There has been a lot of coverage recently about workfare, which if you don't know is a scheme to get unemployed people into work placements. It is controversial for a number of reasons, 1 it is working for Job Seekers Allowance alone, 2. it is widely disputed that it is voluntary, 3. multi million pound companies are supplied with government paid workers, 4. most participants don't get a job at the end, 5. it gives paid work to unpaid workers. There is a lot of rhetoric surrounding the scheme from the left it is blasted as slavery and likened to workhouses and on the right opponents have been called Trotskyists! and George Eustice even claimed opponents were communists! The slavery claim is a bit out there but at least has some basis in fact what opposing working for benefits has to do with communism is bizzarely outlandish at best.

Anyway I digress, the real and present problem here is not whether this scheme works or whether it will help solve unemployment but the disparity between vacancies and potential employees. Take for example here in Cornwall, statistics on the Cornwall Council website reveal that in last December that the number of registered unemployed people was 10,220 (with the note that this is most likely an under-representation of the figure). The same document reveals that there were 2,057 vacancies, we can use extreme rhetoric all we want about the causes of unemployment and the solutions of Westminster but the simple fact is that there are 5 times as many people looking for work as there are vacancies. The research also reveals that the claimant count is up 589 (6.1%) whilst the number of vacancies has increased (+252 14%) there is still a massive gap. In simple terms there is simply not enough jobs and there is little indication that the situation will get better.
(Figures taken from the Economic Intelligence section of the CC website Jan 2012 report)

The problem of the lack of jobs is very much linked with de-industrialisation, we now live in an era where we don't by and large produce things. Here in Cornwall we no longer employ thousands of workers in mining, quarrying, engineering, fishing etc. We now live in a Thatcherite era of service industries, which although produce high profits do not need workers on anything like the scale of the old industries. Government policy of the last few decades has moved the British economy to a non-industrial footing where workers are simply not needed on a scale they previously were. This is unfortunate not only for it's effect on the labour market but also on the wider economy, with the weakening of the pound over the last few years there are very favourable conditions for exports (but unfortunately not for our import based economy).

The real challenge for Westminster is how to create jobs, shuffling people in and out of placements may look good on paper, it may give the chattering classes a chance for hyperbole and argument, but it doesn't address the problem of too many workers not enough work. What is need is investment in labour intensive industries, to bring wealth, to bring employment and to drive up wages.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Unions should ditch Labour

Yesterday the GMB Union broke the news that their affiliation to the Labour Party would be a major debating point at their conference. The Union which funds the Labour party to the tune of £2 million a year has a number of members who want to server ties with Ed Miliband's party. There is a lot of disillusion with Ed and his party's unwillingness to stand up for working people. This presents a welcome debate in my opinion (I may be slightly biased, but) I don't believe that being a member of a union should mean having to financially support one particular political party. The idea that Labour speaks for the working classes is simply not true, they may speak for some of us but other working class people prefer the views of Mebyon Kernow, or Plaid Cymru, or the SNP the Green Party or one of the myriad of socialist and communist parties. Not to mention the many working class people who are not left wing, the idea that poor people vote Labour and rich people vote Tory ignores the fact that there are more working class people yet time and again the Tories are voted into office. I don't think that Union support should be the sole preserve of the Labour party, as the unions are finding now there is no guarantee that the Labour party will support the will of the Unions and their memberships. There are many of us that are members and voters of other parties yet have to fund a party we do not support, this is not right. What the solution should be should be up to the unions of course. But why not give members the option which party to fund with their dues? In fact why fund any party at all? Do the Unions needs a political backer to further the improvement of the conditions of workers?

Cornwall's exports need to be better connected with the world

It strikes me that since antiquity Cornwall has been a well connected place, but it is not now. In fact since the first recorded histories we read of Phoenician traders coming to Cornwall to buy tin, this trade in minerals lasted for millennia and saw great empires rise and fall as it continued unimpeded. This trade with the Mediterranean was not just confined to metal exports, fish cured in various ways was caught and landed here and sold to the Catholic markets of Europe for the traditional meat fast on fridays. On the subject of religion we know that Cornwall was well connected with the Celtic world by the number of saints found in Cornwall who hailed from Ireland, Wales and Brittany. All of these connections of course were facilitated by the sea and our unique geographical position jutting out into the Atlantic. There is a widespread fallacy that Cornwall was isolated and remote before the Great Western Railway was built but it ignores the lessons of history and the Cornish landscape itself.

We may no longer sadly be the premier exporter of tin and copper, but why not better connect Cornwall with the sea? As we all know the A30 and M5 is a weak link with the markets of England, it's a very long road and prone to excessive traffic jams especially in the summer holidays. Being the only trunk road and usable way to up country it's not an ideal situation, but it serves not only the way in which Cornish people go on holiday and people come to Cornwall but the lifeline for the Cornish export industry. Despite Cornwall Council's honourable attempts to wrest control of these trunk roads from central government it is hard to imagine how the state will pay for significant upgrades whoever controls them. They certainly haven't don't it thus far and that was before the recession and austerity cycle, this in mind and with a rising population the situation can only get worse. The question I am posing is why are we relying upon one long and winding road? we have an airport in Newquay and one of the finest harbours in the world in Falmouth and Carrick Roads and some other fine ones besides. Why are we letting this potential go untapped.

Last month was the fantastic news revealed by Cornwall Development Company research that our food industry continues to grow, according to their figures 30% of Cornish jobs are in the food sector amounting to 18% of our GDP (link here). Cornwall has a great reputation for high quality fresh food, whether it be meat, diary products, vegetables or seafood. We also have a great reputation for prepared food and drink and Cornish products are household names throughout Britain. Not to mention Cornish and Scillonian flowers which brighten up people's lives throughout this isle. It is my opinion that these industries can continue to grow  how attractive they are with their labour intensive methods, creating proper full time jobs for Cornish people. For these industries to grow they need to reach a bigger market and reduce the transportation costs. The obvious solution is to look to the sea once again for transport. This not only circumvents the A30/M5 but would open up Cornish goods to the nearby markets of Brittany, Normandy, Ireland and beyond. Certainly we shouldn't foresake our neighbours and our status as England's bread basket but we need to realise this added potential.

I don't think moving to a sea based export system (or indeed import system) would be easy, I don't think it would be simple but the obvious attractions are there, we need to start thinking differently about the world and the problems we face. We need to take advantage of our assets and our geographical position, we also need to realise our limitations and obstacles to growth. I don't pretend to have all the answers and there are lots of other facets to this, for example could we be building renewable energy devices here in Cornwall and exporting them directly. Could we revive the idea to turn Falmouth into a container port, could we take advantage of our position as gateway to Britain and steal a march on English ports? Any ideas or thoughts comment below...