The Scandal of Demonising the Unemployed When There Aren’t Enough Jobs
Austerity isn't working: a poster from 2012 based on the Tories' 1979 campaign poster ('Labour isn't working') that helped Margaret Thatcher win her first general election.
Last week, I received a comment on one of my articles from April 2013, The Tories’ Cruelty Is Laid Bare as Multiple Welfare Cuts Bite, from a reader — Rick — who, through no fault of his own, has found himself unemployed in a society that has been encouraged to regard anyone without a job as deserving of contempt, even though there are nowhere near enough job vacancies for everyone without a job — roughly one job vacancy for every three unemployed people if you take the government’s statistics at face value (and the statistics, it should be noted, hide an unknown number of people who have given up on trying to get a job and are supported by their partners).
The Tories claim to have created two million jobs since 2010, but those figures don’t stand up to scrutiny: there have been 500,000 job cuts in the public sector, average earnings have fallen by 5.7% in real terms, and far too many of those new jobs are on zero hours contracts, where people never know from one week to another whether they’ll be employed, and are rarely paid enough to live on, or are part-time jobs that also fail to provide a living wage.
The way this cruel and deeply cynical government has manipulated the public about the unemployed is just one example of the profoundly negative campaigning they have been encouraged to indulge in by their Australian PR guru, Lynton Crosby, and, to be frank, by the darkness in their own hearts.
Since they took power with the support of the Liberal Democrats in May 2010, the Tories have tarred the unemployed as feckless scroungers, just as they have tried to portray the disabled as liars — or as sub-human — and just as they have also gone along with and played up to fears about immigration that anyone with any genuine sense of responsibility would have tried to play down. I have been writing about these disgraceful policies since 2010, in articles like The Cruelty and Stupidity of the Government’s Welfare Reforms, Brutal Benefit Cuts for the Disabled Are Leading to Suicides in the UK, Who Will Rid Us of This Callous Government, Assaulting the Poor, the Unemployed and the Disabled? and The Tories’ Vile Workfare Project, and How It Has Now Infiltrated the NHS.
The results have been predictable. By encouraging, or failing to challenge, the drift of society towards intolerance — of the unemployed, the disabled and immigrants — the Tories clung on to power, but have helped to remake the country into something that all decent people should fear. Not only is it almost incredible that people in droves have failed to realise that the real problems facing the country are the parasitical bankers and corporate tax evaders and their cronies in government, but, in addition, the hardening of hearts against those less fortunate cannot lead anywhere good.
From the late 19th century to the 1980s, the establishment of the welfare state, and socialist ideals, improved life for the majority, but since Thatcher and Reagan that progress has been in reverse, and in 2010, for the first time in my lifetime, a government took office that openly failed to conceal its disdain for the least fortunate members of society. And when that happens, history teaches us that barbaric options follow — the workhouse, or something much worse.
I thought Rick’s thoughts were worth making available to a wider audience, so his comment, and my reply, are posted below.
I’m ashamed to live in a country like this. Yes, the British public will be all for benefit cuts, after all they have seen the numerous programmes on TV depicting the workshy drunks living the easy life while on benefits. It’s not the norm for the vast majority of claimants, but it makes good entertaining TV programmes I suppose.
The reality is somewhat different, I’m afraid, and the great British public that support these draconian measures (unless they’re a secret millionaire) are closer than they’d ever think to experiencing at first hand the indiscriminate application of these Victorian poverty state policies.
It’s easy to understand the spoilt brat/millionaire attitudes of people like Cameron and his ilk, who’ve never had to work for anything and find it easy to tell everyone else that they should be able to survive on £70 per week. It’s very telling that these spoilt brats probably wouldn’t think twice about spending the same amount on lunch for a day, but what amazes me is the rank and file (ordinary working people) that follow this thinking like sheep in the farm yard.
Yes, the benefits culture did need reforming and needed some original ideas to combat the something for nothing mindset of the minority of claimants, but this one size fits all mentality doesn’t fit.
My own personal opinion is that someone who is claiming needs help to get back into work, but that help isn’t there (I speak from personal experience). If someone has been unemployed for 2 years plus then they either need additional help or a kick up the ass to point them in the right direction. The key word here is HELP, not draconian measures to punish!
My own personal story: I’m a 52 year old male. I’ve worked constantly since I was 16 years of age, apart from 3 years when I looked after my dying father. I worked in education for the last 20 years (full time). Not a teacher, but ran Apprenticeship programmes and functional skills learning. Well qualified in I.T., Management and Health & Safety. Made redundant in Aug 2014, but lived off my redundancy and didn’t claim benefits till Dec 2014 (didn’t want to be classed as a scrounger).
I’ve been applying for jobs since Xmas 2014, must have 250 plus under my belt so far, 2 per cent get back to you (very discouraging). I’m overqualified for the basic jobs I apply for (they think I’ll leave as soon as something better comes along) and competing with people half my age for the higher end jobs. I’m no idiot, have good qualifications, a good CV and a good attitude but what seems to go against me is my age. I know that legally these companies can’t ask that, but I’ve never filled an application out yet that hasn’t asked me to provide my date of birth (sort that out, Mr Cameron).
I received a letter today to say I’d been awarded £11.40 council tax rebate. At the same time I received an e-mail telling me I would now receive £62.10 per week as my council tax rebate was counted as income. I thought the law stated that I needed £73.10 to live on per week? The wolves are at the door, the worst being the water company, closely followed by the council tax (both foaming at the mouth to bring a court case asap). I’m already resigned to the fact that the house will be re-possessed. Fair enough (nothing I can do about that). But where do you good people think I’m going to go from here?
I wrote back:
Thanks for getting in touch and sharing your story.
I find the indifference — or even hostility — of our fellow citizens towards those unfortunate enough not to have paid employment profoundly shameful, and while I understand the malevolent role played by the media, and the black propaganda of the Tories, it reflects very badly on the people of the UK that they are so willing to be openly hostile to those without paid work. What we never hear about is how, even using the most conservative estimates, there are nowhere near as many job vacancies as there are unemployed people, and that as a result it is profoundly unfair to condemn people for being workshy, scroungers etc.
In January, for example, the Department for Work and Pensions claimed that there were 700,000 job opportunities across the country.
At the same time, however, the Office for National Statistics was pointing out that “There were 1.91 million unemployed people.”
The only way to demonise 1.91 million people for not getting 700,000 jobs would be if there was a governmental guarantee of full employment, and we haven’t heard that since capitalism pronounced that it had killed socialism, around the time the Berlin Wall fell. George Osborne’s promise in March 2014 — his “commitment to fight for full employment in Britain” — was something else; the empty words of a Tory politician. As the Guardian noted at the time, “Britain’s employment rate among those aged 16-64 presently stands at 71% — ahead of the US, France and Italy, but behind Germany, Canada and Japan. Leapfrogging them would entail creating up to a million more jobs. Manage that, George, and you might get the full three cheers.”
I also find it interesting that the ONS statistics hint at potentially huge hidden unemployment figures, because the percentage of people aged from 16 to 64 who are in work is only 73%, and 9.09 million people “were out of work and not seeking or available to work (known as economically inactive).” For more on definitions and an analysis of economic inactivity, see this article from the Economic & Labour Market Review in 2009.
As The Poverty Site explains,
“[C]an [we] simply ignore the economically inactive when looking at issues of work? The answer is emphatically not. First, the fact that they are not working means that they have no earned income and many are therefore poor. Second, many of them say that they want to work and it is just due to their personal circumstances that they count as economically inactive rather than unemployed (e.g. lone parents would have to make arrangements for childcare). Third, their numbers are large, much larger than those who are … unemployed.”
I looked up whether the £73.10 that the law says people need to live on is “inalienable” benefit and found that someone had made a freedom of information request and had received this reply in November 2014.
That document explains how deductions may indeed be made from the “inalienable” benefit — for unpaid bills, for example, and includes the insulting claim that “In effect we are acting in the best interests of the claimant — we want to avoid them being evicted or having a utility switched off etc.”
I also agree about ageism in the market place. I’m 52 and wouldn’t want to have to try and compete with people half my age, but as you note it’s not something that anyone wants to talk about — similar, I think, to the way that disabled people, subject to a cynical review process designed to find them fit for work when they are not, are not supposed to point out that, even if they are able to work, they are extremely unlikely to be chosen for jobs if the other candidates are not disabled.
Mostly, though, your story is one of many that ought to be more widely heard, and people should, I believe, be regularly told — preferably through the media — that, unless we’re really quite rich, we’re all only a few steps away from having no job, and having to endure the kind of hostility and indifference you discuss so eloquently.
In response, Rick sent me further comments, including the following, which I think is a good point at which to end this discussion for now, although I hope this article will lead to further discussion. Please feel free to add your own comments.
I suppose the main point I was trying to make was that today it’s me, tomorrow it could be you or anybody else. The great British public who so enthusiastically jump on the bandwagon and applaud benefits being cut to the bone may one day soon (through no fault of their own) be on the receiving end of these Victorian poverty policies. It’s not just down to one political party, it’s all of them. Who would have thought 30 years ago that one day food banks would be common in one of the richest countries in the world? Who knows what’s coming next: the return of the workhouse?
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers). He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the co-director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
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