It’s time that Britain abolished unemployment

Neil Clark: The new jobless figures disguise the reality – 8m people are ‘inactive’ and could be helping rebuild society

BY Neil Clark LAST UPDATED AT 07:18 ON Thu 12 Nov 2009

When the phrase 'Labour isn't working' was made famous by the Saatchi and Saatchi poster which helped Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives win the 1979 general election, around 1.4m Britons were out of work. Today, the official number of jobless is 2.46m. But with around 8m Britons classed as economically inactive, it’s clear that the official unemployment figures are a vast underestimate of the people who could work but who are without jobs.

Most disturbing of all is the level of youth unemployment which has risen to 19.8 per cent, an all-time record. The cost of having so many people economically inactive is enormous. In 2007, when unemployment was officially 1.7m, it was estimated that unemployment was costing the taxpayer £61bn a year in benefits and lost tax revenues.

Yet while opposition politicians are quick to condemn the situation as a 'national disgrace', the solutions they - and the government - are putting forward to solve the problem are timid. All talk of their aim to reduce unemployment. But why not do something really radical and abolish it all together?

Abolishing unemployment and guaranteeing everyone who is physically able to work in Britain a job on state-sponsored programmes, would bring substantial benefits to the economy and to society.

Instead of paying people not to work, the jobless would be employed directly on government projects - carrying out much needed work to improve the national infrastructure, which would add to the national wealth. Critics would no doubt say that such a scheme would cost too much money in the short-run, but the sums involved would be nowhere near the £1.2tr that the government has already spent to keep bankers in their jobs.

The government would receive tax revenues from the newly employed workers and the extra purchasing power of millions of Britons would stimulate economic growth. Not only that, there'd be other significant savings as government spending on the costs of social breakdown would be greatly reduced.

In their book Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture, Steve Hall et al describe how, after the shipbuilding yards closed down in the 1980s, neighbourhoods in Newcastle and Sunderland were transformed from 'well ordered' communities into crime-ridden sink estates plagued with social problems, including widespread drug abuse. It's a depressing pattern of social breakdown that's been repeated across Britain over the past 30 years.

Today, the problem of unemployment is affecting Britons of all social classes. The middle classes avoided the worst of the job-shedding in the Thatcher years, but now they're losing their jobs in large numbers too. Only yesterday, the Guardian Media Group announced 100 redundancies. It's small potatoes by the standards of a factory closure, but similar losses are occurring everyday and they all add up.

So the government's job creation projects needs to acknowledge the growing number of people in the media and the arts who are out of work, just as it needs to help unemployed car plant workers and high street bank tellers.

The Federal Project Number One, part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programme in the USA in the 1930s, provides a good model. Under the scheme, thousands of jobs were created for journalists, writers, actors, artists and musicians.

Among the jobs given to unemployed journalists was the task of compiling detailed guides to the states of America. Artists were employed to paint murals on public buildings, while over 12,700 theatre workers - including a young Orson Welles - were employed on the Federal Theatre Programme. The schemes ensured that writers, artists and performers wouldn't lose their skills-as they would have done if left to the vagaries of 'market forces'.

Abolishing unemployment and guaranteeing everyone a job, not only makes economic sense, it‘s also highly ethical. Unemployment is a personal tragedy which regularly leads to a loss of self-esteem, depression and, in some cases, a descent into alcoholism or drug addiction. A society where 8m people of working age are not economically active, is by definition a sick, fragmented and unhappy society. If we want to mend 'broken Britain' then first we must get Britain back to work.

We no longer tolerate cholera and other preventable diseases, so why on earth do we still tolerate the scourge of unemployment? · 

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