A distinctly average speech from Cameron

The PM fails to set the conference hall alight, calling for "optimism" as growth figures are revised

Today was not a good day for David Cameron. The controversy in the morning over lines in his speech referring to personal debt threatened to overshadow the address itself - and when it came, it was rather underwhelming.

Cameron looked tired and sounded hoarse, which was unfortunate given his emphasis on "can-do optimism". There wasn't much here in the way of policy, simply an attempt to encourage positivity - a tough call in the face of inconvenient facts, such as the news today that growth figures are being revised down.

Ed Miliband was not once mentioned by name, but if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, he can be feeling very flattered indeed. While Cameron rubbished the Labour leader's "saints and sinners" idea, he echoed his language on "vested interests" and the "something for nothing" culture. It is an interesting, if bizarre spectacle to see the leaders jostling for exactly the same ground.

Strategically, the speech did little except to continue the attack on Labour's record, ignoring the fact that before the banking crash, the Tories had pledged to match Labour's spending plans. More worryingly for Labour, he also honed in on Ed Balls. Cameron channelled Nick Clegg when he said "we must never, ever let these people near our economy again". In much the same vein as George Osborne in his speech on Monday, Cameron painted Balls as a basket case; somebody mad, to be laughed at. Labour should work hard on counteracting this tactic before it begins to stick with the public.

While Cameron highlighted his socially liberal credentials on gay marriage, cross-racial adoption, and - with genuine enthusiasm - international aid and educational standards, in many places this was an uncharacteristically right-wing speech. Comments about "bureaucrats in Brussels" wanting to stop diabetics from driving could have been taken straight from the Daily Mail, as could those about the health and safety culture that hindered a school from purchasing highlighters. "Britannia didn't rule the waves in armbands," he jeered. Some right-wing populism is to be expected, but was an odd tone from a Prime Minister at the height of worries over the economy.

"In these difficult times, it is leadership that we need," said Cameron, summing up the scope of his distinctly average speech. Perhaps, given the remit - encouraging optimism when no-one feels particularly optimistic - average was the best he could have hoped for.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Germany's political stability could be threatened by automation

The country's resistance to populism may be tested by changes to its manufacturing industry.

Germans head to the polls this Sunday 24 September. With Merkel set to win a fourth term as Chancellor, it has been dubbed a "sleepy" election – particularly compared to the Dutch and French campaigns a few months ago. Populism, while present, has not taken off to the same extent as in Germany’s neighbouring countries.

In a new Legatum Institute report co-authored with Matthew Elliott, we explore in detail why this is the case, evaluating the historical and economic circumstances as well as social, cultural and political attitudes. In short, support for both the populist Left Party (Die Linke/DL) and for the populist right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has so far been concentrated in former East Germany. At the national level, it has therefore been hard for either party to win more than around 10 per cent of the vote.

However, a longer term trend that might disrupt German politics in future election cycles is automation. With manufacturing making up a large proportion of the German economy, a significant amount of jobs are set to shift between occupational groups. According to the OECD, the portion of jobs at high risk of automation in Germany – 12 per cent – is one of the highest among countries measured.

While the elimination of some jobs and occupations does not necessarily mean net job losses – on the contrary, BCG estimates a net increase of 350,000 jobs by 2025 – it does mean upheaval, both in the job market and in the political sphere.

On the job market front, Germany has a shrinking pool of skilled labour. The Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) consider this poses the biggest risk to their businesses. The government is acutely aware of the issue – its August 2017 progress report projects 700,000 fewer skilled workers in 2030 than in 2014. Moreover, with an ageing population, the demographics are currently not in Germany’s favour.

Resolving this issue will require big and difficult political changes. On the one hand, it means that more immigration, particularly of young skilled workers, will likely be necessary. Given the backlash to Merkel’s "welcome" policy at the height of the refugee crisis, an anti-immigration sentiment was stirred which was dormant before.

On the other hand, while new jobs will be available, this does not necessarily mean that from one day to another that those working, for example, in manufacturing, will be keen to move into the service industry or another occupation altogether. Nor does it mean they will want to, or even perhaps be capable of, reskilling to carry out new digital roles.

In the UK and the US, we recently witnessed how these labour market changes were one of the big factors associated with support for the protectionist and anti-immigration rhetoric of the Leave campaign for Brexit and Donald Trump for president.

In Germany, the regions most exposed to the effects of automation are in the industrial south and west – parts of the country so far spared from the worst of populism. The potential for populist support to expand at the national level should therefore worry observers. To its credit, the current government has already been thinking about it, as evidenced in the Work 4.0 White Paper.

However, policy choices in the next few years will be crucial for mitigating the future labour market and political shockwaves of automation. If politicians choose to merkeln (do nothing) on the issue, the populist backlash might hit Germany, too.

Claudia Chwalisz is a consultant at Populus and a fellow at the Crick Centre, University of Sheffield. She is the author of The People’s Verdict: Adding Informed Citizen Voices to Public Decision-making (2017) and The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change (2015). Her guide to the German election authored with Matthew Elliott can be downloaded here