The endlessly repeated mantra of the Coalition that ‘everyone who can should work’ seems reasonable on the surface, other things being equal. But of course in actual practice they’re not. Most obviously the work isn’t there to do: there are less than 0.5 million vacancies, but 2.5 million unemployed, so a nationwide average of 5 people chasing each vacancy and in many urban areas it’s 20 or 50 or in some cases even more. So the question we should be asking is why do the Tories persist with what they know is impossible?
Just as in the 1980s over a million unemployed people were shifted on to Incapacity Benefit to keep the number of jobless down by artificial means, so now the unemployed are being forced into taking (if available) very low-paid, temporary, unpalatable jobs or workfare by draconian threats (3 refusals and you lose benefit for 3 years) in order once again to keep the numbers of jobless down by artificial means. For the Tories the unemployed are an inconveneint lumpenproletariat to be kicked around from one category to another to keep the capitalist system plausible – it’s the fault of the scroungers and the lazy unemployed not looking for work that’s the problem, not economic mismanagement or bankers’ greed.
The policy is relentlessly punitive. Unemployment is already hugely devalued. If it had been increased in line with earnings since 1979, it would now be worth £110 a week, not £65 as at present. That’s just 14% of the average wage, and one of the lowest in Europe. As if that deprivation plus withdrawal of benefit from those who refuse a job or community work, the Government is now proposing to end end hardship payments for the unemployed, which have always been in place as an ultimate long-stop against destitution.
Even if, faced with this array of sanctions, unemployed persons were to do their best to comply, will employers, charities or voluntary organisations be prepared to take on persons who they know are often unmotivated and only reluctantly forced to take the lowest-paid and most menial work in order simply to survive? What is fundamentally wrong about this callous Tory policy is that it is trying to force all those on benefit below the level of the lowest paid in work whilst at the same time trying to compel hundreds of thousands of unemployed people to look for (in most cases non-existent) work at a pay level of £5.93 an hour (£219 a week) at less than half the average wage.