UK unemployment and Tory benefit reform

Posted by Irresponsibility

When the conservatives start muttering about work and welfare, pay attention; the sheep’s clothing phraseology generally masks wolfish intent. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s recent consultation paper, 21st Century Welfare is a fine example of reasonable-seeming Tory policy that doesn’t bear close examination.

“The overly bureaucratic benefits system can act as a barrier to work,” he argues (p. 5). Sure it can but, statistically speaking, it’s far more likely that it is the lack of jobs that act as a barrier to work. According to Government statistics the unemployment rate has decreased slightly, dropping to 7.8%. Comparatively speaking, that’s good news. It is meaningless in absolute terms, however, as the vacancy rate currently stands at just under 500,000 jobs for nearly 2.5 million unemployed. Unless the Tories can do some loaves and fishes shit with that statistic the biggest obstacle to paid employment is going to be – surprise, surprise – lack of paid employment.

Blaming benefits and “institutionalised” idleness is a hell of a lot more political fun, however, and allows the Tories to ignore the hard realities of the free-market system they so enthusiastically embrace. The whole point of capitalism, remember, is the accrual of capital. By definition, reward in under this system is unequally distributed. According to the Tories and their ilk this should serve as an incentive to work and get rich. Unfortunately a system predicated on inequality cannot deliver equality of opportunity, therefore motivation becomes a moot point. Any halfbright soul can see that success in our economic system is not principally dictated by effort, but by a number of factors largely outside of an individual’s control: age, gender, education, disability status, geographic location and race, to name a few. Not to mention the entirely tricky gray area of what constitutes “able-bodied” in a given set of circumstances. People may be physically competent to work but emotionally or mentally unable to meet the demands of the job market; others face language, culture or family obstacles to work.

Then there is the ideology, ominously spelt out by IDS that people “will be expected to seek work and take work when it is available” (p. 1). Sounds harmless, right? If people need jobs they should take what’s on offer. The sting in the tail of this particular serpent is that it creates a system where employers have all the power. Look at the numbers again: roughly 2.5 million jobless competing for 500K jobs. As one small business owner told me recently: “I used to have dozens of applications for every job I advertised, now I have hundreds”. Another said: “People offer to work for me for free, just to get a foot in the door.” Getting a decent job is basically a lottery. With the Government pressuring people to take any available job you can be damn sure the quality of jobs and compensation is going to drop in inverse proportion to the availability of workers. Why should a profit-seeking employer pay a living wage, or offer a permanent contract, when they have an unlimited supply of desperate workers? (If you are at all unclear as to how this plays out, read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.)

Cutting back benefits will not reduce the “’staggering’ 1.4 million [Brits] on benefits for nine or more of the last 10 years”. Pouring more bodies into an already saturated labour market has the opposite effect, increasing competition for even the most menial jobs to a level that completely excludes the long-term jobless. I wait tables with half-a-dozen university graduates (the rest of my colleagues are third or fourth-year undergraduates). Why, given a ready supply of cheap, highly-educated labour, would an employer hire someone who was on the dole for five years? And how is someone who has been out of work for years supposed to stay up-to-date with essential job skills?

Making work pay is a fine slogan but it is fantasy to expect a profit-motivated private sector with an excess labour supply to deliver a society where work pays. As long as workers are superfluous, work cannot provide dignity and livelihood.

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One thought on “UK unemployment and Tory benefit reform

  1. My manager apologised to me last night: “sorry for leaving you on your own, but my friend came in and she’s just lost her job.” How exactly is Tory empowerment-through-work going to work when highly educated, experienced people are losing their jobs?

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