SOME time ago, I worked in a cheap and nasty office building in which nothing functioned properly, whether the washrooms or the computers or anything else, and the place was generally cramped, cheap and mean.
But don’t imagine this was the fault of Thatcherite/austerian swingeing cuts to the janitorial workforce and maintenance bods. On the contrary, it was impossible to turn a corner without walking into someone carrying a piece of wood or a ladder or wheeling a trolley.
So abundant were they that they resembled characters in a dissident east European satire from the Seventies, one of those underground theatre productions showing communism’s farcical failure to work in practice.
In short, it was precisely because the building was a dump that all these people had jobs.
Translate this bizarre and unintended employment-creation scheme to the national level and you have a large chunk of the George Osborne legacy.
In February, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced latest figures for international comparisons of productivity: “Output per hour in the UK was 18 percentage points below the average for the rest of the major G7 [Group of Seven] advanced economies in 2014, the widest productivity gap since comparable estimates began in 1991.
“On an output per worker basis, UK productivity was 19 percentage points below the average for the rest of the G7 in 2014.”
These figures are absolutely dire and ought at the very least to give pause for thought the next time we chortle about strike-happy French people, indolent Italians and time-serving Japanese salarymen – France, Italy and Japan are all G7 members.
The other side of the coin is that we have record numbers of people in employment. Excellent news, isn’t it?
Well, let me introduce you to four of them – the officials charged with “supervising” a new barrier at Victoria Station dividing the channel for those heading for the five Sussex platforms 15 through 19 from the one for those arriving on the same platforms and heading into the station.
You may have thought the division would happen naturally, as there is no way on to the platforms through the barriers at the start of the exit channel. Nor is it possible to reach the station through the barriers that lead to the platforms.
However, there are some shops on the “exit” side and the only way for customers to reach them is through the exit channel. Thus we “need” these people to ensure that anyone walking the “wrong” way is indeed merely shopping. If you can think of a more pointless line of “work” I’d be astonished but it helps to explain the dismal productivity statistics.
From the late Seventies onwards, communist officials (most famously China’s Deng Xiaoping) would cheerfully embrace market economics provided (a) the result could still be described, however implausibly, as socialism and (b) there were concrete benefits in terms of living standards. Mr Osborne went the other way, talking up “enterprise” and the like while presiding over a low-output, low-income, high employment economy.
I don’t expect much change from Philip Hammond, although I very much hope that he will abandon the Treasury’s imperial ambitions regarding the rest of Whitehall and turn it back into the finance ministry it ought always to have been. I don’t much care whether he does this out of personal conviction or because Theresa May tells him to.
- The top table
THE 1974-1979 Labour Government commissioned academic and Ernest Bevin biographer Alan Bullock to chair an inquiry into the desirability of worker-directors on the boards of British companies. His report recommended just such a system (it had been introduced in West Germany at that time) and was hated by the Tory Party.
Even the mild-mannered James Prior, future Employment Secretary and Cabinet “wet”, gave it a kicking. Speaking in Sutton Coldfield in February 1977, he described worker-directors as “the new frontier of the corporate state”. Labour’s election defeat in 1979 deep-sixed the idea for nearly 40 years.
Until, that is, Mrs May revived it. Why not go all the way, Prime Minister? Tito-ite “worker management” of factories, perhaps, or Tony Benn-style co-operatives. All power to the Soviets, eh what?
- Is your journey really necessary?
WEDNESDAY morning I travelled to the domestic bit of St Pancras Station to use the services of East Midlands Trains, aka Low Speed 2. After what seemed a week, the train arrived in Nottingham and my colleagues and I spilled on to the platform, gagging for tea or coffee. None had been available on the train because, as the manager of the buffet-trolley “explained”, the hot water had run out.
No such problem on the journey back to London. There was no trolley at all.
Worker-directors. Rail passengers treated with contempt. Will the May era prove to be one big Seventies tribute act?
- Maintain your rage
IN case you ever wonder why Britain has voted to leave the European Union, read this extract from a Press Association story on Thursday:
“Theresa May's Cabinet shows the new Prime Minister is more focused on Conservative Party cohesion than the future of the country, the president of the European Parliament has said.
“Martin Schulz attacked the ‘dangerously vicious cycle’ of Tory leaders putting political interests first.”
Cut this out and show it to your children when they refuse to believe there was ever a state of affairs in which a career politician from Germany, “president” (he isn’t one) of a “parliament” (it isn’t one) thought it entirely proper to criticise a British cabinet re-shuffle.
- A jolly good fellow
TWO excellent reasons to welcome Boris’s elevation to the Foreign Office. One, The Times seems doubtful, always a reliable counter-indicator. Two, without him in the Leave campaign we would have lost.
Thanks again for reading and enjoy the weekend.
Europe Isn't Working by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson is published by Yale University Press