How will Boris Johnson fight the scourge of mass unemployment?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson giving a speech during a visit to Dudley College of Technology in Dudley. Credit: PA

Travelling to Dudley on Tuesday for the PM’s socially distanced “New Deal” launch was a bit of shocker.

It was as though I had gone through a time slip to behind the Iron Curtain circa 1985: there was almost no one in stations apart from uniformed officials, not a sandwich in sight at the buffet, manifold shops still shut despite being urged to open.

This is a deep freeze in mid summer. It’s impoverishing, for all of us, literally.

So for all Boris Johnson’s determination to change the narrative from viral despair to hope, his New Deal is - as of Tuesday night - the equivalent of lighting a match to melt a glacier.

His £5billion of accelerated investment is equivalent to a quarter of a percentage point of our national income or GDP, against a record-breaking forecast collapse in our national income this year 40 to 50 times as great.And in a way the underlying reality is worse still, in respect of what most of us think is fair, and in respect of Johnson’s stated mission to “level all of us up”, in that the weight of calamity is heaviest on the poorest with lowest or least adaptable skills.Pending vaccine, this is a disease that can only be held at bay with social distancing and is therefore especially lethal for shops, restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, gyms and anywhere that we go as a mob.Which means that as the government’s employment support schemes taper to nothing in the coming three to four months, those thrown out of work are not the same as the factory workers who moved into call centres or shops or chauffeuring over the past 40 years.The multiple economic shocks since 1979 have all caused human tragedies of legions of individuals robbed of the dignity of work by the absence of demand for their redundant skills.

But even if Johnson succeeds in his stated aim of rebalancing the economy away from consumption and towards making and exporting - partly with the unwanted help of an illness that deadens the desire to consume - it is impossible to turn a shop worker or waiter into an engineer, or a bricklayer, or a carer, overnight.

Which means that if hope is not to be lost by the cheerful faces of our lost shop-till-you-drop-and-drink-till-you-barf culture, if school and university leavers are not to be robbed of years of career progression, one pledge made by the PM on Tuesday matters more than all the rest.That is his promise to give relevant training to anyone who needs it, his so-called “Opportunity Guarantee”.

But we don’t know where the capacity to provide that training will be found, how much it will cost and how decisions will be made about which skills are most likely to provide a reward.

The Holy Grail of industrial policy my entire 40 year career has been creating a system of lifelong learning so that the immorality of unsought unemployment can be minimised.

Never has it been more desperately needed.


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