Vote 2010: Employment

Jobs have not been a prominent issue during this campaign. This is a real concern, as the labour market is at a precarious point.

Jobs have not been a prominent issue during this campaign. This is a real concern, as the labour market is at a precarious point: while unemployment looks as if it is starting to stabilise – far earlier than during previous recessions – levels remain higher than they have been for more than a decade.

The campaign could have provided an opportunity for the impacts of the parties’ economic and labour market policies to be fully considered – but this chance to scrutinise policy proposals, and consider what the evidence tells us about their possible future consequences, has been missed.

We have instead been subjected to a series of labour market soundbites. The Conservatives express concern for a possible “lost generation” of young people, Labour seek to “put an end to long-term unemployment” and the Liberal Democrats are committed to creating “jobs for those who need them”. There have also been some blatant misrepresentations of the evidence.

The worst offender is the Conservatives’ poster campaign claiming Gordon Brown has presided over “record” youth unemployment; Left Foot Forward has previously shown that young people were worse off in previous recessions and the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE has said:

“Young people always suffer worst during downturns, and it does not seem that (relatively) they are doing particularly badly in the latest recession compared with the 1980s and 1990s recessions.”

But although debate about the direction of labour market policy has been scarce, most of the parties have something to say on unemployment. In the TUC’s first Economic Report (replacing our Recession Reports, now that growth has returned) we reviewed the labour market policies set out in the various party manifestos – which reveal more diversity than the press releases might suggest.

The Conservative proposals use the language of “welfare dependency” – and while they would effectively maintain much of Labour’s existing welfare to work policy, they also propose introducing a compulsory “work for the dole” programme (proven to be ineffective) for long-term JSA claimants, as well as stating that:

“People who refuse to accept reasonable job offers could forfeit their benefits for up to three years.”

In addition, while they propose that young people would have access to welfare to work support after six months of unemployment (the current situation), there is no commitment that the Future Jobs Fund, which provides real work with wages of at least the minimum wage, would be continued. While this focus falls short of UKIP’s damning account of unemployed people as “a parasitic underclass of scroungers”, the policies too often pander to the tabloid view that the unemployed are lazy, are actively choosing a life on benefits, and should be forced to work – regardless of whether there are actually jobs for them to do.

The Liberal Democrats use the language of fairness, and make good pledges on tackling discrimination at work and allowing disabled people earlier access to the Government’s in-work support fund (Access to Work). But on welfare reform their policy is close to the Tories, a new work placement scheme for young people paying £55 a week (£1.57 an hour) for up to three months – only a few pounds over young people’s JSA entitlement, and suspiciously closer to a workfare programme than commitment to provide real jobs.

These both fall far short of Labour’s Job Guarantee – a promise to unemployed people (already available to young people through the Future Jobs Fund) that if they cannot find work after two years they will be able to apply for a subsidised position that is paid at least the minimum wage.

While Labour’s welfare reform rhetoric has also been known to pander to scrounger narratives – the no ifs, no buts campaign is a case in point – the job guarantee is the most effective policy on offer. Evidence shows that such policies, providing real work (with time for ongoing job search), are the best means to give claimants references, confidence and experience that workfare cannot match. Job guarantees provide those out of work with the best chance of moving back into work.

Government action is undoubtedly a key reason why unemployment is lower than most predicted. But Labour looks as if it has paid an electoral price for this success. It has not enjoyed much recognition that its policies have worked, and their very success has kept this issue – where they have the best policy options – off the agenda.

But we still have a major unemployment problem, particularly among the young, and it is a shame the media focus on the debates and campaign mechanics has stopped much serious coverage. Withdrawing the Future Jobs Fund and forcing unemployed people into workfare schemes is not a progressive move; if it happens, millions of families currently struggling with unemployment could suffer.

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