From the TUC

Conservatives blame the idle poor for unemployment

02 Sep 2009, by in Economics, Labour market, Politics, Society & Welfare

Michael Portillo’s article in last Sunday’s Times is in agreement with Charles Murray‘s belief that welfare benefits create a dependent underclass. Portillo tells us that:

We ought not to be handing out benefits as a matter of right. They should help people through misfortunes, not subsidise slobbery. They should go to the deserving, not the undeserving. They should pull people up, not push them down….perhaps, at least, we ought to assume that fit young people are not entitled to anything. If a few young men from sink estates are not heroes in Afghanistan, why should we presume that all the others are capable of nothing at all

Only last week the Conservatives gave us a deeply misleading analysis of unemployment under Labour, and Chris Grayling implied that preventing people from ‘building a life sitting at home on benefits’ would improve employment rates. This is an argument against state intervention to tackle rapidly rising unemployment and in favour blaming unemployed people for being too lazy and feckless to get a job.We are seeing the start of a deeply regressive and offensive attack on people who are living in poverty.

The figures behind last week’s Conservative analysis of unemployment remain inaccessible. Newspaper reports suggest they were based partly on the 2001 census (only eight years out of date), and possibly partly on cumulative totals provided in the Labour Force Survey (which would take no account of people moving in and out of the labour market). Without seeing the analysis it’s hard to critique it accurately, but the headline claim that Labour has presided over a growing army of time wasting unemployed people is completely wrong. My colleague Paul’s analysis (not yet online but send an email if you’d like a copy) shows that between Spring 1998 and 2009 long-term unemployment of five years or more fell by 53.8 per cent. It also looks at who the ‘economically inactive’ are – for starters half a million are looking after their families at home and around 1.5 million are retired.

But the figures don’t seem to matter anymore – this is becoming a moral argument about how people in poverty deserve to be treated, and there is nothing progressive about the emerging Conservative position. Their moral judgements take no account of economic circumstances, local labour markets with no jobs, the real discrimination that groups including disabled and older and black workers still face, the need for qualifications and the limited opportunities for those who don’t have them. They do not consider the precariousness of many low-paid jobs, the real difficulties of juggling low-paid work with family responsibilities, the life-long advantages that the right parents and the right inheritence can buy you or how some people can be broken by years of never ending unemployment. But most of all they rest upon an idea of people living in poverty as less deserving of human decency than others.

The Left know that surviving on benefits is not a life that people aspire to, that those who are unemployed would far rather be in meaningful work than living on £64 a week and that treating people with respect and providing real help – and real opportunities – is far more likely to enable people get a job than cutting their benefits and forcing them into even greater poverty and debt. We know that unemployment is not a reflection of character, and those of us who still have our jobs thank our good fortune rather than our moral superiority. But it is increasingly clear that if these arguments don’t win, the risks of a return to the 1980s are now very real.

3 Responses to Conservatives blame the idle poor for unemployment

  1. Matt
    Sep 3rd 2009, 12:15 am

    Sadly I think the debate is lost. I found myself unusually angered by Portillo’s deeply unpleasant article, as I didn’t trust many of his figures at first glance and was amazed when I actually did some research.
    All the reaction to the article that I’ve read is both emotive and seemingly instant (nobody bothers to think about the numbers, or check whether they’re true).

    As you mention the 1980s (and I fear you are right) – here are some figures that I dug out of the Labour Force Survey.
    In 2009 1 in 6 households are workless.
    In 1996 1 in 5 (FIVE) households were workless.
    In 1979 1 in 12 households were workless.

    Doesn’t take a genius to see where it went wrong. Sadly, I fear most people have short memories.

  2. Charlie Marks
    Sep 3rd 2009, 10:20 pm

    The cheek of these Tories who presided over the managed decline of the economy to blame the unemployed for their inability to find work… Coming from the people who brought us mass unemployment!

  3. The Conservatives and welfare reform | ToUChstone blog: A public policy blog from the TUC
    Oct 2nd 2009, 6:26 pm

    […] welfare policy may be slim, they do exist – the Conservatives are more likely to publicly blame people in poverty for their own predicament, and consequently favour even greater benefits conditionality and place […]