No time for blaming the victims
The TUC expects long-term unemployment (that is people unemployed over a year) to rise from 400,000 to 700,000 by the end of 2009. This is a depressing figure, but it wouldn’t be any higher than the level the Government inherited in 1997. For all the talk of records being set, I don’t expect anything like the million-plus level of long-term unemployment we saw in the early 1990s.
If they concentrated on the contrast with the Conservative record the current Government would actually have quite a strong story, they could do very well by playing to their strengths. So it is all the more disappointing that the latest welfare reforms give the impression that they are trying to dodge the blame for unemployment by shifting it on to the victims.
Starting in October, benefits for disabled people and lone parents will be harder to get, pushing the people who would otherwise have received them onto Jobseeker’s Allowance, the main benefit for unemployed people. The changes were made when the economic situation looked a lot healthier and conservative media outlets were criticising the Government for going easy on malingerers and the workshy.
This was also the background to the publication of No-one Written Off, the Government’s latest welfare reform Green Paper and its most controversial proposal – to introduce a system of “workfare”, making people unemployed for over two years work full-time in return for their benefits. The media coverage of the Green Paper latched on to the proposal as way of clamping down on people who wish to avoid moving into work or are working and fraudulently claiming, which possibly explains why it was quickly adopted by the Conservatives and even by Bob Spink, the UK Independence Party’s lone MP.
But if the number of long-term unemployed people rises quickly, we can expect the politics of unemployment and social security to start shifting. When more and more people have a relative or neighbour who has lost their job or are scared of losing their own, they are less happy to accept that these problems are being caused by lazy individuals.
The tougher benefit rules for disabled people and lone parents will push up the number of people on JSA, so the claimant count – the headline measure of unemployment – will go up even faster than it would have done in any case. Eventually it will probably feed through to unemployment using the more rigorous ILO definition and the Government could well come to regret this decision as it starts to make employment look less like a success story.
By 2010 a proportion of these new JSA claimants will feed through to the long-term figures. Disabled people and lone parents face extra obstacles in the labour market, and research has shown that, when they switch to JSA, they tend to stay on the benefit longer, so the impact on the long-term figures may be disproportionately larger than the impact on overall unemployment.
Introducing workfare at a time when long-term unemployment is rising could have the biggest political impact of all these changes. It is the most clearly punitive measure, and may not look so clever if public sympathy for unemployed people is growing. Instead of playing to the gallery, the Government may find that it is criticised for blaming the victims of an economic cycle over which they have no control.