Blaming unemployed for sin of unemployment

The coalition government's 'welfare reforms' are a direct attack both on the jobless and on the working class as a whole, writes Eddie Ford

In a House of Commons statement on November 11, works and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith unveiled the coalition government’s plans for ‘welfare reform’ in the form of a white paper, Universal credit: welfare that works. Duncan Smith sternly declared that this “radical” shake-up of the welfare system was required in order to tackle the “national crisis”, in which some five million working-age Britons (13% of the total) receive assorted out-of-work benefits - with 1.5 million finding themselves jobless for nine of the last 10 years. Indeed, Duncan Smith wearily remarked, four million jobs were created under Labour - yet 70% of them were filled by people from overseas because people from this country “were not capable or able to take those jobs”, which for the former Tory leader was “surely” a “sin”. God only knows what the almighty must think of the lazy British unemployed.

Well, according to Duncan Smith, enough is enough - war is declared. The days of “dependency culture” and daytime television are numbered. Time to get nasty. Which is to say, launch an all-out assault on the unemployed, and the working class a whole, by attempting to ‘roll back’ the welfare state to the point of extinction and vanish the ghost of Beveridge forever. With the coalition government, as Duncan Smith put it, we are witnessing a “once in a generation” attempt to get the “jobless back to work” - make or break for the country. In response, socialists and communists must do everything in their power to ensure that this direct attack on our class is defeated.

Duncan Smith announced that the government is developing a “regime of sanctions”, due to begin in 2013, for the undeserving indolent who refuse to “play by the rules” - they just won’t get off their backsides. The scheme will take up to 10 years to come into full effect and will cost £2.1 billion to start up, but we are reassured that the new system will save money in the “long run” by reducing - and weeding out - what Smith calls “error and fraud”. Additionally, bringing joy to the hearts of reactionaries everywhere, we will finally see the long-cherished dream of “targeted work activity” for those who “need to get used to the habits of work”. In other words, the introduction of a United States-style workfare scheme where you have to work for your dole - or starve. And, of course, your children might have to starve as well. If so, hard cheese - that is tough love for you, so get used to it.

So under the new plans, there will be “tougher penalties” for those who repeatedly fail to “look for work” - as adjudicated by your friendly benefits manager, keen to impress those further up the food chain. For those deemed to have “serially and deliberately” breached the conditions, they risk losing their benefits for up to three years - as opposed to six months, which is the current maximum sanction. But do not go thinking that you can just then get yourself a nice hardship payment instead, as we are told that the government was considering ways to ensure that those miscreants who “persistently fail to meet the requirements imposed upon them” cannot turn to “alternative sources of support for the entire duration of their sanction”. That is, converting the not exactly generous hardship payment into a truly penny-pinching loan system. Between April 2009 and April 2010 around 20,000 jobseeker allowance (JSA) claimants were sanctioned for refusing to take employment, and thus received hardship payments while they were contesting the decision. However, if the government gets its way, you will now be hit with a double whammy of misery. First by having to go through the stress of the appeal process (which sees you ‘living’ on a reduced amount of JSA for the duration) and then you have the added anxiety of having to pay back your hardship payment/loan out of your benefits if you are lucky enough to win your appeal. Isn’t life great, eh?

Naturally, lone parents with young children aged between one and five will not be exempt from the new requirements - forget it. They too will incur sanctions if they fail to regularly attend “work-focused interviews”, getting their benefits slashed by 20%. Needless to say, a second ‘offence’ will see their allowances cut by a further 20%. And so on. As Duncan Smith told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show - “if you as a parent” who just “point-blank refuses to take work”, then “you will be losing” benefit just like everyone else. Go tell it to the kids later after you have read them their bedtime story.

£1 an hour

As we know, one of the major planks of the coalition’s ‘welfare reforms’ is the establishment of mandatory ‘community work’ - four-week-long placements that involve working at least 30 hours a week. Or, as the Daily Mail says with great relish, “The feckless unemployed will be forced to take part in a punishing, US-style ‘workfare’ scheme involving gardening, clearing litter and other menial tasks for just £1 an hour in a new crackdown on scroungers” (November 9). Under the workfare UK project, if the “feckless” fail to turn up on time or are judged not be working sufficiently hard - ‘How high do I have to jump, sir?’ - they will be stripped of their dole for at least three months. So, instead of receiving their usual JSA, a rather princely £65.54 a week for a single person aged 25 years or over, they will be sweeping leaves or cleaning toilets for between £30 and £40 a week - roughly the equivalent to £1 an hour, or one sixth of the minimum wage. Excellent news for the local bosses, of course, who will find themselves with a reserve army of virtual slave labour to exploit - sorry, provide with valuable ‘work experience’. When they complete the workfare scheme, the lucky jobseekers/claimants will then be expected to look for a ‘proper job’.

Of course, Duncan Smith rationalises this new “contract” with the unemployed by promising that, when the new system is fully up and running, then - unlike now - “work will always pay more” than benefits; therefore to snub your nose at a job under the new regime would by definition be clear evidence of ... fecklessness. So you only have yourself to blame for waving goodbye to your benefits.

A much touted and essential element of this welfare ‘revolution’ is to “radically simplify” the complex and often arcane benefits system by introducing a single universal credit (hence the name of the white paper), which will replace working tax credit, child tax credit, housing benefit, income support, JSA, etc. The idea is for this universal credit to be paid on a monthly basis, rather than the current weekly or fortnightly payments, so as to bring welfare payments into line with salary pay cheques and to “encourage personal responsibility”.

Another supposedly revolutionary innovation of the universal credit, to further make work pay, is to align it to “real-time earnings”. Meaning that in theory people will be able to move in and out of work without necessarily losing all (or the vast bulk of) their benefits overnight, often leading to a situation where taking up employment means a sudden income drop - the classic ‘welfare trap’ or work disincentive. After all, even if the income drop is only temporary - and, of course, for many people that is not the case - your bills, rent, mortgage, etc still have to be paid on time, otherwise you face a potentially calamitous situation like eviction or bailiffs on your doorstep.

So is the job worth it? According to Duncan Smith, the marginal deduction rate - the process by which benefits are withdrawn as earnings increase - will improve from its current highest level of 95.8% to around 65% (for those below the personal tax threshold). Thus a benefit claimant hit by the present 95.8% rate effectively only receives an extra 4p for every £1 earned, whilst under the new universal credit they will receive 35p. (Though it does have to be immediately pointed out that in his capacity as chairman of the Centre for Social Justice, Duncan Smith last year proposed a more generous taper of 55%.)

Duncan Smith claims that some 2.5 million households should get higher entitlements as a result of the move to the universal credit, and the new transparency in the system will produce a substantial increase in the take-up of benefits and tax credits. Taking everything into account, he argued, his ‘welfare reforms’ will have the effect of lifting as many as 350,000 children and 500,000 adults “out of poverty”. Indeed, if implemented the changes will make all claimants better off - because “if you cooperate” and “work with us”, then “you will go through this quite happily” and “nothing will happen to you”. So says the works and pensions secretary.

Presumably to show the ground-breaking nature of the welfare white paper, David Cameron chose to laud the measures as soon as he landed in South Korea for the resoundingly non-historic G20 summit: “The message is clear. If you can work, then a life on benefits will no longer be an option. If people are asked to do community work, they will be expected to turn up. If people are asked to apply for a job by an adviser, they will be expected to put themselves forward. If people can work and they are offered work, they will be expected to take it. This is the deal. Break the deal and they will lose their unemployment benefit. Break it three times and they will lose it for three years”.

Lean and mean

So welcome to the new lean and mean welfare order, one which the Labour Party leadership seems largely to have accepted as a fait accompli. Hence the shadow work and pensions secretary, Douglas Alexander, declared that he “welcomed” the “laudable aims” of the plan - namely, the creation of a “simpler benefits system that removes disincentives for people to get into work”. But he did worry that “if you are going to move people from welfare into work” then there needs to be “jobs for people to take up”. Which, of course, there are not. Duncan Smith’s jobs that “make work pay” for the working class just do not exist in any numbers worth talking about and the chances that they will in the near future are remote.

Monstrously, mass unemployment is almost certainly here to stay - it has become normalised. During the 1950s and 60s we were told that unemployment had been more or less conquered: all that remained was ‘frictional’ or technical unemployment, as workers moved almost effortlessly from one job to another - just walked down the road to the next factory, which seemed to offer better conditions. The good times, even the ‘leisure society’, was here. But by the early 1970s the story - the lie - was starting to break down, with bourgeois commentators fearfully wondering whether the working class would tolerate unemployment levels of half a million. Perhaps massive civil unrest or even revolution beckoned if we returned to the poverty and insecurity of the 1930s, a prospect which the post-World War II welfare state was supposed to have put an end to once and for all.

Yet mass unemployment became a reality under the Wilson/Heath/Callaghan governments, and then shot through the roof under Thatcher, as large swathes of industry were destroyed in the name of ‘competitiveness’ and ‘labour discipline’ - yes, a price worth paying in order to make Britain great again. This led to the creation of a semi-permanent unemployed contingent of the working class, vilely slandered as the so-called ‘underclass’ by near endless academic idiots and horrified liberals (and, for that matter, by those infatuated with the notion that the ‘wretched of the earth’ were in fact the true revolutionary vanguard). More to the point, when capitalism made its turn to financialisation from the 1970s onward, it was doomed as a system to low growth. Bluntly, the chances of another 1950s-60s long boom are non-existent.

Therefore communists implacably defend the unemployed from the attack upon them being planned by the coalition government - the real “sin” being capitalism. But we aim to do more than just defend what exists - no matter how important that may be, whether it be the rights of the unemployed or the welfare state as a whole. Communists do not peddle Keynesian nonsense - silly dreams about how everything would be miraculously better if only we had the right sort of government pursuing the right sort of ‘policies’. No, we fight to reorganise the entire economy - by preparing for a socialist transition which will abolish unemployment and radically reorganise the economy so that it serves human need. As opposed to the ‘work till you drop’ culture we have now, the flip-side of which is enforced idleness in the form of unemployment.

Under working class rule, we could abolish unemployment virtually at a stroke - by offering everyone useful work, whilst doing away with such unnecessary and parasitical sectors as advertising, insurance, speculative banking, etc. At the same time, we believe that society’s total necessary labour-time - which at this juncture is so monstrously inefficient and cruelly wasteful - could be radically reduced. Technique is so advanced now, let alone when we think of the potential for even more advancement, that there is no need for stupid, soulless, demoralising, dead-end jobs - the sort of ‘McJobs’ which the coalition government and Iain Duncan Smith have in mind for us. With our new society, a communist one, the role of education and training will not be to prepare people for the ‘jobs market’, but rather to make them into full, rounded, human beings.