Lockdown – Reflections at the end of week 32

This week has not been the first week in which the Prime Minister has had reasons to be grateful to Jeremy Corbyn. In the past, the cause for gratitude was Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to offer viable opposition to the government, whether in the House of Commons or in a general election campaign. This week, it has been the former leader of the opposition’s response to the report of the Equality and Human Rights Commission into anti-semitism in the Labour Party which has led to his suspension from the party and has knocked Covid off the front pages with a resounding thwack. Aside of the findings of the Commission, which are pretty damning of the leadership and culture of the Labour Party during Corbyn’s watch as leader, the whole episode also highlights the need for a meaningful opposition. This is not particularly a matter of party politics but a requirement of our Parliamentary democracy if it is going to deliver good government and retain public confidence. At times of crisis, the need for effective and confident opposition is more important than ever.

As it happens, whilst the Labour Party has spent some time this week engaging in inevitable introspection, the strongest expression of political opposition has come from a group of Conservative MP’s who have been pleading the cause of the north of England. This can, of course, be seen as a move to try to protect their own continued presence in Parliament after the next election as the blue wall, constructed at the last election on foundations of Brexit and disillusion with more traditional choices, is showing deep structural cracks.  They have opened up as the north feels progressively abandoned through the Covid crisis. Less cynically, it can also be regarded as an attempt to draw to the attention of a government which shows few signs of a true understanding of the implications of widespread unemployment and low pay for people whose lives, which were challenging anyway, have been made more difficult by lockdown measures. The strength of feeling is amplified by the signatories covering the full spectrum of Conservative thinking ranging right across from Thatcherite free marketers to those formerly known as wets.

In the meantime, the Prime Minister has been given a brief break from close scrutiny in order to decide if he’s going to be Santa Claus or the Grinch. There is a lot of advice coming from scientists which points towards the Grinch. On the other hand, the government has shown understandable reluctance to inflict further hurt on the economy. There are other sub-currents eddying around as well. They range from a Prime Minister with a yen for being liked having to deal with a political situation where a strict lockdown in England would hand a free hit to the opposition who called for it weeks ago, through to the extent to which the public, already impatient and bored with restrictions, would not comply with restrictions on socialising and distancing as much as they would need to do to make a fuller lockdown effective. It would be a brave leader who endorsed mass arrests of families as they tucked into the turkey.

Bound up in the approach to restrictions is the situation of the economy, and it is interesting to see that the IMF has praised the UK for its fiscal response to the Covid crisis and lockown measures, downgraded its forecasts for the UK economy due to the second wave but also suggested that there is room for more financial support and impetus from central government. It is purely based on our own experience, but we as a firm are seeing a reluctance amongst our clients to take up the new job support scheme. For some, it’s just not suitable because restrictions on trading mean that they can’t keep people at work for 20% of their usual hours. For others, it’s just too complicated. The effects of low take up of the scheme will be that people will be made redundant instead, so revisiting job support as an alternative to high long-term unemployment may be something that the chancellor will need to consider if he does decide to reach further down the side of the sofa.

In other news, lockdown has been good for Hornby who make not only train sets and Scalextric but also the Airfix models by which I marked my childhood in bursts of activity and gluey fingerprints.  They have seen sales grow by 33% in the last 6 months as our embracing of hobbies and crafts, as well as a bit of nostalgia, continues. Lockdown has also been good for Amazon for the obvious reasons, but even they are susceptible to problems. This week saw an extraordinary string of errors in their recent launch in Sweden. They ranged from using the Argentine rather than the Swedish flag all the way through to lewd mistranslations in product descriptions by automatic translation systems. It is comforting to know, in the depths of moments of frustration with IT when working from home, that giants also have their difficulties with it.

I hope that you have a better weekend than is in prospect for Mr Corbyn.

Ian Waine
Senior Partner