From the TUC

A job for everyone

21 Jun 2013, by in Economics

The idealism of war-time economists – and their assumption that full employment can be achieved – is a tonic. At a seminar next month, we aim to re-kindle that idealism.

Recently I’ve been reading some of the discussions about full employment that took place at the end of the second world war. What struck me most was that the sections I was looking for – where the various authors set out the case for full employment – simply didn’t exist.

Famously the 1944 White Paper on Employment Policy began with a stirring commitment:

The Government accept as one of their primary aims and responsibilities the maintenance of a high and stable level of employment after the war.

The next 31 pages are then devoted to how that is to be achieved, the White Paper doesn’t set out why that objective has been set. I’ve also been re-reading a 1943 Fabian Society pamphlet, Full Employment, by Barbara Wootton (my copy was bought in a second-hand bookshop, I’m sorry to say I can’t find it on the web). It’s very relevant to today’s debates, and its central argument is an extended critique of austerity. But Wootton doesn’t waste time making the case for full employment.

What she wants to demonstrate beyond contradiction is that Britain’s wartime experience, with unemployment levels of below 100,000, means that

Nobody can ever again assert that full employment is impossible.

Beveridge’s Full Employment in a Free Society does make some gestures in this direction. I’d guess that most trades unionists will agree heartily with this passage:

A person who has difficulty in buying the labour that he wants suffers inconvenience or loss of profits. A person who cannot sell his labour is in effect told he is of no use. The first difficulty causes annoyance or loss. The other is a personal catastrophe. This difference remains even if an adequate income is provided, by insurance or otherwise, during unemployment; idleness even on an income corrupts; the feeling of not being wanted demoralizes.

Beveridge also argues that full employment is vital if society is to persuade workers and their unions to accept efficiency improvements that might threaten jobs and that a labour shortage is a stimulus to technological advancement. These are persuasive arguments but they take up a handful of pages, most of the other 400 are spent on the question of how to achieve full employment.

What the authors of these diverse works had in common was their assumption that everyone would support the objective of full employment. To them, this was so obvious that dealing with the details – or in Barbara Wootton’s case, arguing for a progressive version of full employment policy – was the priority.

How does this attitude look seventy years later? Beveridge’s humanitarian concerns shine out and the commitment of the economists of the day to building the peace is admirable.

We can choose to re-create that commitment – or we could revert to the attitudes of twenty years ago. In the early 90s, years of mass unemployment had bred a hard attitude to unemployment. It was terrible, but there wasn’t much you could do about it. That attitude pervaded all the Parties and it took a long, hard fought campaign to overcome it. Indeed, the rediscovery of full employment didn’t really take root until we had more than five years when most of the country enjoyed a “high and stable level of employment”.

At present, all the major Parties are committed to full employment, and at the TUC we want to make sure that that remains the case. That’s why, over the coming months, we’re launching a series of pamphlets and holding briefings and seminars on different aspects of full employment.

This begins with an initiative we’re working on with the Institute for Public Policy Research on a seminar on “The Case for Full Employment: gateway to better jobs.” This is a seminar that we’re holding at 2.30 on the afternoon of 10 July at the House of Commons: Boothroyd Room, Portcullis House, Bridge Street, London SW1A 2LW to launch a new report: A job for everyone: what should full employment mean in 21st century Britain?

The speakers include

Nicola Smith, Head of Economic and Social Affairs, TUC, Chair of the seminar

Kayte Lawton of IPPR, co-author with Tony Dolphin of A job for everyone: what should full employment mean in 21st century Britain?

Robert Halfon MP (Conservative) – a personal response to the pamphlet

Ian Lavery MP (Labour) – a personal response to the pamphlet

There is no charge, but places are limited book yours at

2 Responses to A job for everyone

  1. Heather Wakefield
    Jun 23rd 2013, 9:23 am

    Hi Richard – interesting blog. Thanks. I thought you might like to hear what Tony Benn said in the closing session of yesterday’s People’s Assembly….at the end of the war he asked (not sure who) why it was that we could have full employment to kill Germans, but not when war had ended…He’s got a point!

  2. Sasson
    Jun 23rd 2013, 10:45 am

    It’s admirable to have these ideas, but really no amount of enthusiasm and attending meetings is going to solve the major problem: there are no jobs!

    The industries that the masses worked in have gone. In my area Stoke-on-Trent, more than 20,000 jobs in the pottery industry have gone during the last 15 years, and that’s just ONE industry. We’ve lost the steel works, mines, mills, and clothing factory ‘Belstaff’.

    Unemployment in Stoke is LESS than just the amount of jobs lost in the pottery industry alone. We would therefore have had FULL employment here with just one of these industries.

    We need new industries if we’re truly serious about finding work for upwards of 5 million people; a massive undertaking.

    Presently, the only solution offered is for the unemployed and sick (in the WRAG) is for them to work for their benefits in places like Tesco and Argos, but that doesn’t work either because existing staff are having their hours cut.

    What we need to start to take seriously is in light of increasing automation and mechanisation the we may NEVER find work for a growing number of people. We need a completely different approach then. Why aren’t we moving toward a society where ALL people work less, so that the remaining jobs in our economy are shared? Why are we still working for 40 hours a week? Some people have to work even more hours than that, either to make ends meet, or because their professional job requires them to work a 60 hour week: this really is unacceptable in this day and age. In fact during the late 1970s there was much discussion along these lines, looking into a future where work would be vastly reduced in order for people to enjoy life and their families more.

    We need radical approaches to this not the prospect of more enslavement via workfare for those at the bottom, as well as for those at the top who earn good money but are enslaved by the ridiculous hours worked.