It’s hard to imagine a more fitting or better timed testimony to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher than unemployment figures soaring on the day of her funeral.
The number of people who are unemployed has rocketed by 71,000 people today’s figures reveal whilst long term unemployment is also back on the rise . This follows last month’s news, conveniently released on budget day, that youth unemployment had soared by 5%, something almost ignored by the press.
Youth unemployment has risen again according to this month’s figures, conveniently released on the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral and showing the biggest rise in unemployment in almost 18 months.
This is all good news according to Mark Hoban and the DWP, who in an astonishing press release seem to believe today’s figures are something worth celebrating. The statement almost completely ignores soaring unemployment and instead focuses on a small drop in the claimant count – the number of people currently claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. The press release cheers the news that 2,800 less young people are claiming benefits without even mentioning that overall youth unemployment has risen by 20,000.
In truth the fall in people claiming benefits is quite likely down to the number of people disallowed Jobseeker’s Allowance under draconian new rules, or those who have abandoned the social security system completely after being hit with a long term benefit sanction.
The only reason the unemployment figures didn’t soar as public services were massacred was largely down to people on workfare, part time workers or those precariously self-employed being included amongst the official ‘employed’. It now seems that even mass workfare won’t help cover up for George Osborne’s bungling of the economy.
But just as importantly, today’s figures come after two years of welfare reforms and the multi-billion pound Work Programme. Claimants now face an unprecedented sanctions regime with hundreds of thousands of people having benefits stopped for not meeting the endless and ever changing jobseeking activity rules. Hundreds of thousands of pounds have been shelled out on the Work Programme – the flagship scheme aimed at ending long term unemployment and which seems to be doing the exact opposite. Tens if not hundreds of thousands have been sent on workfare, this Government’s only answer to unemployment.
Iain Duncan Smith has boasted many times of the tough new welfare regime, whilst ever more punitive rules have been introduced alongside wild claims about how many people they would ‘incentivise’ to find work.
And yet none of these things are working. Unemployment as it turns out, is not caused by unemployed people. It is a structural problem of capitalism, much beloved by many bosses for the downward impact it has on wages.
No amount of harassing unemployed people will cause unemployment to fall. No matter how many hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people are magically declared fit for work it will not make a jot of difference to the employment figures. Even if the endless workfare schemes were successful in finding people jobs – and they aren’t – they would only be displacing other people out of the labour market. Every government sponsored job on the Youth Contract scheme just means an older person out of work.
In this context, even the worst tabloid demons – the tiny number of those actively avoiding work – don’t seem so bad. With hundreds of people desperately chasing every vacancy, those content to live on the poverty of benefits could be said to be taking one for the team.
This was not an uncommon view under the Thatcher government, when unemployment hit 3 million and older workers feared being replaced by younger, cheaper, unemployed people. Since then a long drawn out smear campaign aimed at claimants has attempted to blame the economic failure of successive governments at the feet of the poorest. The mood has turned violently against even those who genuinely can’t find work or are not well enough to be employed. As every politician has lined up to show how tough they are on welfare all that has happened is the poor have got poorer and the welfare-to-work companies that emerged to harass and bully claimants have got very rich. From Blair’s New Deal to Iain Duncan Smith’s Work Programme, none of it has had any real impact on unemployment.
Perhaps it is time to imagine a new welfare state. One in which genuine volunteering, parenting, studying and caring are all given the recognition they truly deserve or where people who are sick or disabled can make their own judgement about whether they are ‘fit for work’. A welfare state where the surplus army of the unemployed, which always exists under capitalism, are not forced to work for free and make unemployment worse, but can use the time to learn, raise children, become involved in the arts, join their local tenants association or volunteer without the compulsion of benefit sanctions.
Thatcher knew the cheapest way to manage unemployment was to chuck people enough money so that they won’t start murdering coppers and then abandon them. But it does not have to be one extreme or the other. There are many ways claimants can help both themselves and wider society without being forced to work in Tesco for no pay or becoming a commodity for welfare to work companies – and many claimants already do just that.
Instead of shoveling billions into the pockets of poverty pimps like A4e the money could be spent on genuine education or training or used as seed money for environmental projects, kids activities, worker’s co-operatives, allotments or community festivals. Things which claimants at all levels of ability and availability could become involved with on their own terms. Places where people could learn new skills, add value to both their own lives and their communities and bring a genuine transformation to areas often blighted by poverty.
And if a few people don’t want to do anything at all then so what. There’s hardly any of them and they cost a pittance. The world is as it is, not as Iain Duncan Smith, the Daily Mail or Liam Byrne wishes it was. Social security policy should reflect reality not silly fantasies of street drinkers and heroin addicts skipping to work at Poundland everyday where they will be warmly welcomed by benevolent shop managers just desperate to give them a job.
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