A job for everyone
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 http://bit.ly/fullemployment