Freudian slips and punishing the poor

Unite employed and unemployed workers, says Eddie Ford

To the sound of much governmental hoo-ha and approval, we were presented on March 5 with proposals that - if implemented - could represent a significant attack on the working class. The fact that these schemes have been unveiled in the same very week that the big five banks announced record profits - like every year, it seems - only serves to make it feel like a sharp slap in the face for those struggling to survive week in and week out.

Therefore Downing Street was the more than appropriate venue to launch a report by philanthropic investment banker David Freud. Of course, Freud is a typical friend of Blair - given his starry-eyed infatuation with 'wealth creators'. Indeed, hobnobbing and schmoozing with the rich and famous has been a distinguishing feature of New Labour from day one - with the newly-elected Blair prancing like a coke-fuelled Bambi before the likes of Bernie Ecclestone, Rupert Murdoch, etc.

Freud's official remit is to tackle, or expose, the "hidden" jobless. This is borne out of the government's frustration that, for all its endless tinkering of the welfare and benefits system in order to make it supposedly more 'work-friendly', some 3.5 million people of working age remain on so-called "inactive benefits" - entitlement to which does not require them to be "actively" seeking work. Hence, according to official department of work and pensions statistics, 70% of Job Centre Plus clients are repeat 'offenders' (ie, claimants), leading to the suspicion that there was "not enough emphasis on sustainability" in efforts to get people back into work. Obviously, this category predominantly includes lone parents and the sick/disabled.

Thus the Freud report outlines a series of get-tough measures against the lazy poor - not to mention the indolent sick or disabled. Or, to put it in government-speak, a campaign to "lever" the long-term jobless off "inactive" benefits. As part of this drive to punish the poor, Freud's welfare 'reforms' will include an "element" of compulsion - though the details are so far hazy - in order to force the "inactive" unemployed (particularity lone parents) into all sorts of soul-destroying MacJobs and bogus training schemes. To use yet more Freudian lingo, the unemployed will be required to "take advantage of job opportunities".

Hence, if Freud and his Downing Street fan-boys get their way, there will be a new stipulation for single parents to "seek" work once their youngest child reaches 11 years old - as opposed to 16, the current age. This would entail, Freud argues, lone parents being pressurised to rejoin the workforce once their kids have been shipped off to secondary school and having to face compulsory "work-focused interviews" with the possible "tapering" of their benefits, to use the impersonal jargon Freud so loves to slip in.

Carrying on in this vein, John Hutton, the works and pensions secretary - who regularly reminds us that he was brought up in a lone parent family reliant on benefits - stated that if "more help and support" was provided to get lone parents back into the job market, then it is only reasonable for the government to "expect you" to take up that "help and support".

As for those on incapacity benefits, it seems that Freud wants them to undergo more stringent tests - and hence be reclassified as 'able to work'. If you're not - well, hard cheese, mate.

But it is not all bad news - hell, no. Displaying its presumed new generosity, perhaps, the government wants the long-term unemployed to impress at job interviews, so will "help" (albeit in an unspecified way) the useless buggers to buy suits - though probably not Armani or Versace - and get a nice, shiny haircut. So you will now look presentable for the bosses, which must be a relief. There may even be the provision - joy of joys - of "cheap" loans for the long-term jobless, so they can get their debts "under control" and return smiling to the job market. Though in all likelihood, thanks to the "cheap" loans, the poverty-ridden unemployed will probably end up in more debt, not less - even non-Armani suits do not come cheap when you are scraping a semi-existence on the dole.

But it does not end there - though the measures outlined above are bad enough. Freud's "fresh thinking" - or thinking 'outside the box', if you are partial to obnoxious corporate jargon - contains a whole raft of other proposals which would represent a major assault on the rights and conditions of employed workers as well as the "inactive" unemployed.

Therefore Freud and the government want private companies, charities and the voluntary sector in general to play a greater role in seeing that the most "difficult" jobless workers find employment - whether gainful or not. As part of the plan, the task of 'assisting' the long-term unemployed would be transferred to a new private agency set up to commission voluntary bodies and private companies to provide such services as deemed necessary. Or yet again in the almost insouciant words of Freud, there are "clear potential gains from contesting services" and "bringing in innovation with a different skill set" - not to mention the not unimportant fact that outsourcing will create an "annual multi-billion market".

So, back to the future then - with the 'needy poor' dependent on charitable handouts from the great and good. Victorian values, Blair style. What a load of reactionary crap.

Unsurprisingly then, Freud has given his open approval to an Australian system which operates in a manner very similar to the one outlined in his report. Keen to share the 'burden' of finding work for the unemployed, private firms and voluntary organisations are pulled in to provide 'employment schemes' for benefit claimants. Companies are offered what amounts to a bounty - that is, if they manage to keep a former claimant in work for three years or more, they receive a percentage of the benefit that would otherwise have been paid out. How ideal for the Australian ruling class - workers on the cheap. Very cheap.

Logically, of course, all these efforts and schemes amount in reality to the part-privatisation of the UK's job centres - and hence pose a very real threat to the jobs of thousands of civil servants. Obviously then, communists oppose any attempt to hive off sections of the benefits' systems - such a move would represent a frontal attack on both employed and unemployed workers.

Of course, the civil service workers' union is making militant protests. So PCSU leader Mark Serwotka - as quoted in the latest issue of Socialist Worker - has declared that "these privatisation plans are a slap in the face for the dedicated job centre staff who have successfully delivered the New Deal and the lowest unemployment in a generation". He also sagely remarks: "You have to question whether it is right to introduce the profit motive into getting people back to work" - when instead, he adds, the government "should be looking at giving Job Centre Plus staff the opportunity to build on their success rather than blindly turning to private and third sectors" (March 10).

Very good, comrade Serwotka. But can you be trusted? After all, it was you, backed to the hilt by the Socialist Party-dominated executive, who sold out your own members in October 2005 by agreeing to raise the age of retirement to 65 and forcing future civil servants to suffer an extra five years' wage-slavery.

And this was without a fight, without a campaign for industrial action. Defeats happen. Of course they do. But not to have fought, that was unforgivable. Contradictorily, you both claimed a victory and blamed the rank and file. Said that they were would not stand up for the interests of future workers. Sad.

There is growing dissatisfaction with the Serwotka-SPEW regime. And thankfully there are socialist forces seeking to harness it. Lee Rock, secretary of the PCS Independent Left, told this paper that a socialist challenge is being mounted. "Twenty branches have nominated our candidates in the forthcoming elections to the national executive".

Comrade Rock is quite clear: "To defeat Freud we must unite PCSU members with the rest of the working class, not least unemployed workers. Realistically that can only be done on the basis of a programme that champions extreme democracy and seeks to replace the capitalist principle of profit with the socialist principle of need."