1980s >> 1980 >> no-913-september-1980

2 million out of work

“The Government accept as one of their primary aims and responsibilities, the maintenance of a high and stable level of employment after the War”. This statement formed part of a White Paper issued in 1944 by the then coalition government comprised of the Tory and Labour Parties and an odd Liberal. Many workers thought the ultimate in working class existence had arrived—a job for life. Some stupid Labour MP’s thought a high level of employment meant jobs for all, but they were quickly disillusioned. What has gone wrong? On both counts —‘high’ and ‘stable’ — all governments, particularly over the past decade, have missed their aim.

Unemployment, a social scourge of the twenties and thirties, is again front page news. Politicians vie with each other in putting a mathematical equation to words. In 1975, when unemployment reached 1¼ million under a Labour government, Michael Foot, then Minister of Employment, said this figure was ‘intolerable’. In May of this year, 1,659,000 unemployed was ‘distressing’ to Mrs. Thatcher, ‘terrifying’ to Eric Varley; and when the July count rose to nearly 1,900,000 this, said the Shadow Cabinet, was ‘appalling’. All these crocodile tears do nothing to solve the problems and indeed encourage an air of cynicism about politics.

It seems likely that the 2 million mark will be reached by the time this article is published. The official figures are only for those who have registered at the Labour Exchange, (or, to give it some class, the Job Centres) and the real number is undoubtedly higher. Ron Brown, Labour MP for Leith, in a recent letter to the Guardian, when the official figure was just over 1½ millions, said . . .“the true figures would be nearer two million if unregistered women were included”.

The current recession has almost tumbled into a slump. One region after another feels the lash of redundancies and short time working. Newspapers give an almost daily tally of the lost jobs, many from firms that are household names and the ‘pride’ of British industry. Guest Keen and Nettlefold; Courtaulds; British Steel; Ford Motors . . . The reasons given for the downturn in the workforce are standard—a fall in demand for their products. This is a common feature of capitalism, in which demand has nothing to do with people’s needs; it is a market reflection of a system based on the profit motive.

Suddenly it seems that all politicians and the media are concerned with young people. It is not the same for those workers around 60 who are getting towards the end of their useful productive life.The teenagers who cannot find a job are a serious matter. Supposing these young people, on the dole for months on end, developed a disinterest in, or even an antipathy towards, wage slavery. Wouldn’t it bode ill for this system? The writer, leaving school at 15 in the middle of the thirties, was the successful applicant out of 82 others for the plum job of office boy in a respectable firm of Estate Agents; salary (not a wage in an office) was fifteen old shillings a week. Forty five years on, history repeats itself as 500 young people apply for a shop assistant’s job in Sheffield at £32 per week. A director of the firm stated . . . “We were stunned when we saw the queue. They were standing five abreast . . . we managed to interview about 80 and had to send the rest home. Some of the youngsters who turned up were highly qualified . . . but we were more concerned with dress sense and personality”. In Smethwick, West Midlands, 167 applied for a vacancy as Junior Office Receptionist at £24.50 for a 48 hour week.

The July figures included 108,000 young people leaving school and entering the labour market. This high figure will be repeated until 1982 when the result of the baby boom of the early 1960s runs down. (We are just waiting for the politician who claims that part of the reason for high unemployment is the irresponsible sexual habits of the working class.) A large proportion of the young people can take heart in the government promise that if by Easter 1981 they are still on the dole, they will be guaranteed a place in the Youth Opportunity Programme and taught an alternative trade. Whatever they are taught at the centres is no guarantee of a job. With flames of ambition quickly dampened, young people are finding out early in life how capitalism can discard them.

Promises to deal with unemployment have always been a vote catcher to the major parties. Labour (who “care” for people) like to be known as the Party/government who are concerned that the workers follow their traditional role of wage slaves. Tories are pictured as the hard-faced crowd who by forcing workers on the dole will be able to run the system more effectively for the benefit of the rich. Both the self bestowed accolade and the accusation are untrue.

In 1976 the Labour Government set themselves a 3 year target; to reduce unemployment to 700,000 by 1979. The April 1979 figure was 1,340,595, nearly double their target. How’s that for a party who claimed they could plan capitalism and deal with its ups and downs. High though the April figure was, it showed a drop of 60,000 on the previous month and this decrease was hailed by Mr Callaghan as . . . “a product of the economic and industrial strategy” which Labour had been following. If we grant him this concession, can we also assume that the figure 1,340,595 was also due to Labour strategy. Oh no. This high figure, according to Callaghan, was the result of ‘‘fundamental structural problems” in the world economy. He has probably never come closer to a more accurate assessment of the situation. But now he is in opposition, he blames the Tories for the high figures. Let us, and him, not forget that under the Labour Government in 1977 unemployment was over 1,600,000.

Capitalism is going through one of its periodical crises and the Tories claim that they have not increased unemployment deliberately. Their major concern is to reduce inflation to single figures and if this means unemployment has got to rise, then so be it. Callaghan held an identical view . . . “But as long as we are trying to squeeze inflation out of the economy, this unemployment is unfortunately one of the consequences that we must face”. (House of Commons. 25/1/77). But does one necessarily give rise to the other? Between the end of 1920 and the middle of 1933, prices fell by over 50 per cent, yet this same period saw record levels of unemployment. Inflation and unemployment are not hand maidens. The former is a deliberate act by government, the latter a logical sequence of the capitalist system.

A more detailed analysis of the causes of unemployment appears in another article in this issue. Many solutions are put forward. Perhaps the most novel so far emanates from the three former Labour Cabinet Ministers Williams, Rodgers and Owen. “Such a national industry training scheme would ease unemployment. So would longer holidays”. The last one takes our fancy, although no mention is made of extra holiday money.

“Heavy unemployment is not a British phenomenon. It is a global epidemic” said the Daily Express on 28 July 1980. There is a global answer, not only to this problem, but to the other social evils that prevent us from realising our full potential.

Cyril May