George Osborne’s commitment today that the Conservatives will fight for full employment in Britain is another way for the Chancellor to make an iconic gesture towards ‘blue collar’ voters who might still feel left behind by Britain’s recovery (he can find a useful guide on other things to do in the pages of today’s Sun). The first was a rise in the minimum wage, long fought over by Conservatives as a measure which could damage employment, but embraced by the Chancellor as a way of showing that the recovery is for the many, not just the few. Today’s commitment in the Chancellor’s speech – which was initially billed as Osborne describing Britain as ‘starting to walk tall in the world – was an attempt to show that walking tall can include those at the bottom as well.
It is another long-term version of the Chancellor’s ‘adopt or kill’ approach (revealed by James in his column in September) to Labour ideas. Ones that have had purchase with voters get adopted, just as Labour has shamelessly pinched Tory clothes in the past too. And in this case, it is an interesting killing of an old Conservative adage from David Cameron’s old boss Norman Lamont that unemployment was a price ‘well worth paying’ for lower inflation. Of course, Osborne hasn’t adopted the full left-wing concept of full unemployment: he told the audience at Tilbury Port that ‘as we learnt again recently – you can’t abolish boom and bust, so attempts past and present by governments to guarantee a job to every person are doomed to fail’.
But Osborne is still setting himself a challenge by saying that a Conservative government would aim to ‘have the highest employment rate of any of the world’s leading economies, to have more people working than any of the other countries in the G7 group – that’s higher than the 73.5 per cent enjoyed by Germany. And this big challenge is a big pitch to those voters who feel left behind by the recovery. The question is whether the Chancellor plans to announce any new policies that will help the government achieve that, so that those voters find that pitch credible.