Guaranteed jobs and enforced work (aka I WANT MY HOVERBOARD)

Labour has just announced what looks likely to become a central plank in their electoral strategy in a couple of years. They are guaranteeing the offer of a job for anyone who has been out of work for 2 years. On the face of it, and stated like that, this looks great – long term unemployment is a real problem for people stuck in it, and for children growing up surrounded by it. Giving people the opportunity and experience to work is likely to benefit them and the people around them.

However, there are a few questions I think need answering to clarify what this policy really is. The answers to these will really strongly colour how I feel about this policy. At best, this is a good policy badly let down by how it has been presented, and at worst an economically and socially illiterate tax funded subsidy to those least in need using the forced labour of the demonised poor.

1. Why are we compelling people to work at all?
Balls has stated that benefits will be withdrawn for anyone choosing not to accept the job ‘offer’. This fits with a general social idea that people should be forced to work as part of a social contract. This is in many ways the biggest challenge I have, and the one I’ll need to look into the most before I’m happy to state my own position, but my initial reaction is that it is barbaric to force people to work against their will.

I want to live in a society that demonstrates compassion, that doesn’t force people to act against their will, and that provides a decent standard of living for everyone in it. Deciding to make people suffer where it is in our gift to support and nurture them is cruel and I want no part of it. I will take some convincing that it is somehow better to force people under threat of starvation and homelessness than accept that decision not to work and ensure that they are comfortable and able to provide well for their children and dependants.

The economic argument to withdraw benefits after two years of unemployment seems trivial in the grand scheme or things – much smaller to both individuals and the state than the costs incurred by the NHS de-organisation, the education de-organisation, the privatisation then partial unprivatisation of the railways, and the avoidance of tax by large international companies.

I am tempted initially to support something like the Citizens Wage, described and argued for here on A Latent Existence with links to handy further reading, which gives each citizen a set amount of money. This provides everyone the opportunity to feed, clothe and shelter themselves to a basic level, without living under duress. However, I’ll need to look into that more before committing.

2. Where will these jobs come from?
Even if we accept that people should be forced to work, its not clear how there can be the jobs required to make this guarantee. The economy is currently difficult, and there aren’t enough jobs to go around. The numbers of unemployed, long term unemployed and underemployed have risen over the last few years. I am yet to be convinced that any initially promising signs in employment numbers mean a sustainable growth of any kind, let alone one that could provide employment for every long term unemployee as well as everyone who has been disemployed in the last two years.

The proposed method of paying for this scheme seems like a socialist dream, in that raising tax on the wealthiest is being suggested to fund work for the long term unemployed. I am behind that in principle, and as long as the money stacks up, this is not a point of contention at all for me.

New jobs will have to be created to meet this need, and I can think of D) ways of doing this.

A) Provide subsidised work to the private sector.
This is mentioned in the initial version of the policy proposed today, but I really hope this changes before the next election. I struggle to see how this could legitimately increase the number of jobs, as private employers would use this labour to replace their existing low skilled, low paid workers as they have done with the workfare schemes. I suppose criteria for using the workers could include conditions that force expansion, but I don’t see any modern political party forcing the hand of industry in that way, and private industry would still only take these on if it improved profitability in some way.

However this is formulated and implemented, this ends up with the state subsidising shareholders in private industry without really creating work. I am not comfortable with tax revenue being paid to private companies to replace low paid work with even lower paid work.

B) Provide subsidised workers to the public sector.
The public sector has contracted significantly since the election, as I’m sure it would have under a Labour led government, and I don’t think there are many publicly funded bodies not feeling a significant pinch. This is leading to a decrease in public unemployment even where people are not being made redundant, through natural wastage. I am sure many public sector organisations would jump at the chance to have cheap labour, but they will recognise that there are often significant skill gaps between long-term unemployed and high quality nurses, firemen, administrators and managers. And to be clear THE PUBLIC SECTOR NEEDS ENOUGH GOOD ADMINISTRATORS AND MANAGERS. Frontline staff cannot magically do everything.

So this ends up looking like the government is just providing essential funding to deliver services from a different pot, with strict limits on the staff it can be used to employ. Although this may allow public bodies to deliver some services, it looks like a massively inefficient way of using public money to do so.

C) Dig a hole and fill it up
Keynes argued that it was more worthwhile to employ someone to dig a hole and someone else to fill it up than it was to have two people without work. I agree with this when opposed to the austerity and deficit porn Osborne and, sadly, Balls seem stuck on. The value to communities, families and individuals of people working is much greater than difference between the benefits and tax bills. It is both financial and psychological – and is depressingly widely seen as a measure of social worth.

However, this seems like a massive missed opportunity – if people are going to be offered a job after two years, make it a useful one. People who feel engaged in their work will get more from the job, and be more likely to stay in it for the long haul, and pass on a strong work ethic to others in the community.

D) Create genuine public sector work
This is superficially similar to the above, but involves a great increase in spending on genuine public services rather than with concentration on those jobs that can be reasonably filled by the long term unemployed. If you increase public spending across the board, more jobs will be created and these will be filled. Additionally, really big projects could be undertaken that those involved could be proud of.

Is there any good reason the entire rail network could not be upgraded quickly? How about a decent national cycle network? Why isn’t every public building covered in solar panels? Why don’t I have a hover board? Is every public building wheelchair accessible? Could children stand to have more after school sports, arts, music, science and tech clubs? Could jet packs be made safe and affordable? Is fibre optic and 4g coverage available everywhere? Do we recycle plastics other than bottles properly? Is every library book in the country on the right shelf? When can I go to the moon? Are there any old or disabled people that could use some support? I want a goddamn flying car already.

If the answer to this question ends up as D, I am a very happy pixie, not least because I really want that hover board. I could sadly live with the wasted chance of C in preference to continued public sector slashing. I couldn’t support B as although the intention is probably good, the practice would almost certainly be more destructive to public services than the benefit to individuals is worth. A would really, really grind my beans for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to go further into.

3. How individualised will these jobs be?
It is important that people starting work for the first time in a while have a good experience to increase the chances of staying in a post for the longer haul. Will there be a process whereby they can reasonably choose between different working conditions? A hard physical job outside would be very unsuitable to those who have multiple health conditions but have been taken off health related benefits by ATOS, but may well suit an ex-factory or dock worker. How people are matched to jobs will make a huge difference in how suitable a match it is, and this needs to be spelled out. Of course, not everyone can get the perfect job, but everyone should get an acceptable job.

Other important factors include the locations for these jobs. For people based in London, Manchester or Birmingham I don’t imagine there will be much difficulty finding work, but this won’t be the same in Fleetwood and Darwen. Will people be expected to spend more than fifty percent of their probably minimum wage on travelling three hours a day to get to the nearest city with jobs? Or should people move away from their family, friends and homes to take up a job they have to take?

I will only be happy if there is some assurance that people will be offered jobs that they are suited to and in a suitable location, and that they are likely to get skills and experience that make it more likely that they can move on to other jobs as and when they choose.

4. Why is it being presented as it is?
The initial piece that I read was by Ed Balls, and the Twitter account of the Labour press office mentioned this on several occasions. They are really emphasising the ‘tough’ aspect, although of course not all Labour supporters like that. Now, this rhetoric makes me feel really uncomfortable – in a world where there is currently, and potentially indefinitely, less work to do than people to do it, we should not be punishing people for not having work. There is no reason to be ‘tough’ with people for not finding work that doesn’t exist. I agree strongly with giving people the opportunity, skills and any other support to help them find work, but shouldn’t be demonising people who haven’t yet been able to do it for themselves.

What we need is a positive approach that understands the challenges a rapidly changing highly industrialised society, with pockets of disenfranchised people in the second or more generation of unemployment. The same policy would be much better simply for a positive presentation of those people, as it would help create a more inclusive, supportive society. Of course, it wouldn’t pander to the centre ground of politics, which is increasingly authoritarian, petty and unpleasant around out groups such as the poor, the unwell and the foreign. I sadly suspect this short term party political posturing explains the damaging presentation, as Labour compete with the Conservatives to be the toughest kid on the block.

Could this policy work?

So, in the guise presented originally I am really worried about this proposal, but from the ashes of this policy could rise a really good policy. The changes or clarifications that I feel must be made to make this a decent, progressive and socially beneficial policy are roughly:

  • Remove the compulsion aspect – offer everyone a paid job and encourage and support them to do it
  • Make sure the job is suited to the person in terms of work required, such as physical and mental effort
  • Make sure the job is where the person wants and needs to be
  • Make the job worthwhile – make it serve a public good rather than shareholder interests
  • Stop talking about getting tough with people, and recognise that it’s tough for people

I hope  that between now and 2015 Miliband and Balls recognise these problems, and use this opportunity to create  jobs, improve public services, and protect those in need from public invective stirred up by the unpleasant posturing of the Conservatives.

Labour – Please, be the party of the left and use the proposed pension tax on the richest to fund a better society for all of us, and not a worse.

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