In searching for a purpose for his Government, Cameron has conceded and turned distinctively to the right. On Wednesday the Prime Minister, when he wasn’t on the backfoot fending off Ed Miliband’s attack on his leadership, attempted to outline a vision of what the Tories in government are all about.
It fell to him, he said, to tell us the inconvenient truth: we’re in a global race and we either work harder or disappear. His analysis is not a new one. Nor is his remedy. His answer, such as it was, is borrowed straight from the right wing of the party in their book, Britannia Unchained. It is an analysis which rides roughshod over employment protection, ignores our existing strengths and demonises Europe. It needs challenging.
We had heard chunks of what he might be about to say throughout the Tories’ conference. There had been references to shift workers getting up at the crack of dawn whilst their neighbours slept as well as mentions of people having to work all the hours God sends so that they can provide a “better life” for their children, whom they will never actually get to see.
The Prime Minister has himself ignored some inconvenient truths of his own in his call to arms. The first is that the countries he cited as competitors to ape – Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia – are becoming richer because they are coming from such an impoverished base and have never had the social protection that so many have fought so hard for. For sure, there is much we can and should learn from our competitors. But emulating low paid, unprotected and ultimately replaceable labour – conditions which lead to appalling poverty and exploitation – is not one.
The second inconvenient truth is that the countries which Cameron implicitly denounced as “fat and sclerotic” (read Continental Europe) are often those that not only outperform us on growth and productivity but whose own labour laws are stronger, often resulting in a better, happier and more efficient workforce. The Euro crisis and a deepening rift between citizen and government across the continent – both issues which advocates of Europe have done precious little to address – have played well into the hands of those who would turn the UK into some kind of Dickensian workhouse.
That Britain faces a tough future ahead unless it adapts and innovates to a world where power shifts east and south is a given. And the fact that there are people working themselves to the bone whilst other could, and should, do more is also not something I would wish to take issue with.
But the lowest common denominator should not be an answer. The shift worker putting in unsociable and unsustainable hours, the parent who leaves home before their kids are up and returns home after they are asleep; these people deserve praise but also hope for something better.
Labour in government recognised the need to compete on skills and not to attempt to undercut low value production in developing countries. The Tories appear to be abandoning this concept entirely. The EU is an imperfect body comprising a myriad of different economies. But to ignore its strengths and present it purely as a millstone around our necks will simply isolate us and leave us with little alternative but to race to the bottom.
That way lies ruin.