Friday 10 March 2023

How many points does it take to make a good plan?

Perhaps there’s been some sort of deflationary process at work or perhaps attention spans are shorter, but I’m sure the answer used to be closer to ten than five. Maybe it’s just harder to think of ten. I can remember being part of a group of Plaid members picketing a hotel in Cardiff whilst Labour’s leader was in a meeting inside – back in the days of Michael Foot, I think, although the details escape me. To say that Plaid was a rather less well-organised party in those days would be putting it kindly; although we’d been encouraged to turn up, none of us were really sure what we were there for. It was Owen John, as I recall, who said that we had to come up with a ten-point list of demands – nothing less would do – to put to Labour, and then demand a meeting. Coming up with the first half dozen or so was the easy part; it was making the full ten in a way which was relevant to the occasion which caused us the problem. On my recollection (although as the late queen of England put it, “recollections may vary”) the picket petered out before we’d reached the magic number.

Anyway, ‘five’ seems to be the number to go for these days, with Sunak’s five plans (although in truth, the lack of detail makes them look more like five slogans) and Labour’s grandly-titled five missions (although the use of the word ‘mission’ conveys a sense of purpose which seems to be sadly lacking in the detail). In the war of the fives, Sunak has criticised Labour for omitting ‘stop the boats’ as a key mission. Yesterday, Labour revealed its plans for childcare (although ‘plan’ in this context looks more like a plan to develop a plan rather than a thought-out policy), an area which, in turn, seems to be missing from Sunak’s list of slogans. Whilst it’s true that ‘the boats’ is dominating the xenophobic tabloids and the news reports, I somehow suspect that the lack of affordable child care might be directly and personally impacting rather more people than a few arrivals along the south coast of England. So, half a cheer for Labour for choosing a rather better ditch to falsely promise to die in than Sunak.

Only half a cheer, though, because when we come to look at why Labour is proposing to develop a policy (this year, next year, sometime …), it appears that the motivation behind it is rather more grubby than it appeared at first sight. They have, apparently, identified 100 constituencies in which they think their new policy (whatever it is and whenever they announce it) will buy them enough votes to gain a majority in the Commons. And I use the word ‘buy’ deliberately – this is transactional politics in action. Their second argument is that getting more people (largely women) back to work in jobs which otherwise don’t pay enough to cover the cost of childcare whilst leaving a worthwhile income for household spending will boost the economy overall. I’m sure that it will, but this is another indication of how Labour has bought into capitalist ideology, and sees the role of the state as to increase the supply of labour rather than promote the fulfilment of individuals. It’s a better offer than the Tories are making, but being more competent at running the system is a) not exactly difficult, and b) not really changing very much. The availability (or lack) of free or cheap childcare is unquestionably holding people back, and Labour is right to recognise it. There is a danger, though, that we lose sight of the underlying problem, which is low pay. However it’s presented, state-funded childcare is a subsidy first and foremost to employers, not to employees, and it enables the continuation of a low wage economy, particularly for women. A real ‘mission’ would be to address that problem, not to apply a coat of fresh New Labour paint.

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