Friday, 19 November 2010

Insensitive, offensive and just plain wrong - Lord Young proves he's an old codger

In an interview with the true-blue Telegraph Tory peer Lord Young said "the vast majority of people in the country today... have never had it so good," but the choice of words by this particular individual couldn't have been worse if he'd tried.

As an unpaid advisor to the coalition Government he obviously has sufficient private means to insulate himself from the government cuts. He is also in a position to be able to watch from the comfortable inside of Whitehall as large numbers of paid workers dependant on state employment are sent into the insecurity of the outside world.

With experience as a former Trade and Industry minister during Margaret Thatcher's tenure in Downing Street he is of a select vintage harking back to a period in history which political folklore has memorialised in thousands of urban regeneration projects up and down the country to compensate for the damage caused. And His Dotage clearly recalls Harold Macmillan's era-defining comment when post-war stability allied to the burgeoning welfare state certainly did make it appear all was well with the world.

But now is not then and neither has the future decided whether the current economic circumstances are merely a blip on the chart of history or a tipping point at which a slide into catastrophe became inevitable.

That Bank of England interest rates are at historic lows certainly does mean mortgage repayments are well below where they might have been given different reactions by decision-makers - 0.5% is a long way off 15% - yet with the home-owning democracy of his former bosses now underpinning the credit ratings of millions and the freedom of mobility enabled by a continuous upwards trend in house prices under threat the general sense of security and well-being is nowhere near where he imagines for the 'vast majority' he spoke of.


It's difficult to guess whether the appearance of such a dinosaur trotting out on the stage with this selection of stereotypical lines will help or hinder the coalition in the longer term, but the damage limitation exercise by Number Ten's PR department will hope the swift retraction and full apology proves sufficient.

LibDems ministers on the other hand must be seething that they may be tarred by this blue brush (especially with their first public test of the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election getting nearer by the day), and they could be tempted to insist that an example is made of him. Such a move would certainly demonstrate a difference in tone between the parties and show they are still an independent force, although an orchestrated move by backbenchers would cause some friction with colleagues in the cabinet.

So new LibDem President Tim Farron has an immediate opportunity to flex his freshly-mandated muscles as the spokesman for the membership and he would make a definite impression in his own progress towards a future leadership contest against Danny Alexander.

The episode provides ample grounds for restating the long-standing LibDem position that although the country has consistently made tangible gains these have been unequally distributed across different sectors of society.

As the furore of definitions of 'fairness' brought to light, the burden of the cuts does have a proportionately larger effect on those at the bottom of the ladder, but significantly the ONS measures also show there is a growing underclass of people who were getting left behind as inequality has continued to rise throughout periods of cuts as well as during phases when growth in government spending has dominated.

So while Labour and Conservatives direct their political messages at business and the aspirant middle-classes of professional and subsistence workers there is a still-untapped constituency of outsiders who LibDems have traditional attempted to appeal to and for.

This messy underclass of NEETs and others remain largely beyond the scope of government intervention. Despite all the efforts and money directed at them these are people who are disillusioned and disenfranchised by the state.

These are the neglected and unrecognised groups who prefer to avoid means tests and the stench of pencil-pushing bueaucrats. They may be non-voters, they may have mental illness or depression, they may be drug-users, probationers or homeless or simply people who see the media construction of state and other people as irrelevant to their own enclosed lives.

They are people who drift in and out of formal society or who've dropped-out completely and live a casual meandering existence. You won't find them if you're looking for them because their art is in avoiding you.

They live on the fringes of political consciousness because they won't ask for help and would refuse it if offered: the state isn't providing solutions for this underclass and I don't think it can provide any direct solutions - instead the state must be reformed.

And this is where only the LibDem belief in freedom can be transformative.

They need to be able to say that their way doesn't have to be the same as your way, and that this is OK if you are prepared to accept the consequences.

For starters it would help if they said Lord Young should be sent on his way.

Over to you, Mr Farron.

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