The biggest back to work scheme since the 30s? A history lesson for the PM

The PM described the government’s ‘work programme’ as “the biggest back to work scheme since the 1930s”; this is a very strange parallel for them to draw in support of his policies.

By Gregg McClymont MP (Labour, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East)

First the employment minister Chris Grayling, and now David Cameron – at Prime Minister’s Questions today – have described the government’s ‘work programme’ as “the biggest back to work scheme since the 1930s”. This is a very strange parallel for them to draw in support of their policies.

There were certainly significant job creation programmes operating in America during the 1930s, but these were never contemplated by the Conservative government of the day.

In spite of strong opposition from the Labour party and those Liberals who refused to join the Tory-led National Government, the Conservatives insisted that philantrophy would be enough to deal with the unemployment crisis that had come to define the 1930s.

It would be very easy to match the ‘achievements’ of back to work programmes in the 1930s, but less than desirable for a government seeking to reduce unemployment.

The fact is that there were no back-to-work schemes worthy of the name during the 1930s. Unemployment remained above three million across the decade.

The national average was around 10 per cent of the insured population, but in Scotland, Wales and northern England it remained significantly stubbornly high, at between 12% and 20%. (Broadberry The British Economy between the wars: A Macroeconomic Survey, 1986, page 104, table 10.2).

This was largely because it was also concentrated in traditional working class occupations. In 1931, one third of unskilled manual workers in England and Wales were unemployed (Clark, C The Conditions of Economic Progress, 1951, page 470).

The conventional wisdom advanced by the coalition of Conservatives and Liberals who were governing the country at the time was that the financial markets would not tolerate government expenditure on job creation schemes of the sort that were pioneered by Roosevelt in the US.

‘Safety First’ was the slogan of Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister of the coalition government for much of the 1930s.

This sounds all too familiar today. Familiar, too, is the only real initiative advanced by the Tory-led government of the 1930s to deal with the problem. In what could be seen as an early example of the ‘Big Society’, ‘work clubs’ were formed, in which members of the prosperous middle classes of southern England were ‘paired’ with workless northern communities. Surrey adopted Jarrow, employees of the BBC adopted Redruth.

As one leading historian of the period has observed, unemployed workers regarded these clubs as ‘patronising’:

“They offered the unemployed everything except work – the one thing they wanted.” (McKibbin, R Classes and Cultures 1998)

The Department of Work and Pensions duly announced the introduction of a new wave of work clubs for the 2010s at the end of last year.

20 Responses to “The biggest back to work scheme since the 30s? A history lesson for the PM”

  1. Caer

    RT @leftfootfwd: The biggest back to work scheme since the 30s? A history lesson for the PM: //bit.ly/fEUH4n by @GreggMcClymont #PMQs

  2. caer23

    RT @leftfootfwd: The biggest back to work scheme since the 30s? A history lesson for the PM: //bit.ly/fEUH4n by @GreggMcClymont #PMQs

  3. yorkierosie

    RT @leftfootfwd: The biggest back to work scheme since the 30s? A history lesson for the PM: //bit.ly/fEUH4n by @GreggMcClymont #PMQs

  4. Son of Robespierre – Here’s what others have to say…

    […] The biggest back to work scheme since the 30s? A history lesson for the PM…Left Foot Forward Son of Robespierre – Enjoy & Share: […]

  5. Stephen W

    Do you realise that throughout the Great Depression unemployment was lower in the UK than in America?

    Roosevelt’s brilliant policies cannot have been that brilliant then. Nor the National Government that useless.

  6. FDR

    @ Stephen w. The evidence for the comparison is not entirely straightforward,but two salient factors suggest themselves. Firstly, the uk did not suffer a collapse in its banking system or an agricultural subsistence crisis comparable to that of the US. The crash was milder,in relative terms.Secondly, the uk government embraced devaluation and protection earlier,which in the context of a less integrated global economy was a route to marginally lower unemployment than that which was suffered in the US.

    I think that the writer’s central point – that unemployment in the 1930s is not s good precedent for the current government to judge it’s policies against – probably still stands.

  7. Danny Walker

    RT @leftfootfwd: The biggest back to work scheme since the 30s? A history lesson for the PM //bit.ly/h1HLTa

  8. David Marsden

    RT @Danny_Walker29: RT @leftfootfwd: The biggest back to work scheme since the 30s? A history lesson for the PM //bit.ly/h1HLTa

  9. Red Rag

    I believe someone overheard George Osborne blaming the world prices of snow for the rising unemployment figures.

    //redrag1.blogspot.com/2011/02/red-rag-another-44000-are-thrown-on.html

  10. Mr. Sensible

    Repeating history, but not in the way we want…

  11. Nick Robertson

    RT @leftfootfwd: The biggest back to work scheme since the 30s? A history lesson for the PM: //bit.ly/fEUH4n by @GreggMcClymont #PMQs

  12. Stephen W

    @FDR

    That’s fair enough. The government obviously displayed a touch of historical ignorance as there were no major work programs in the 1930’s. That is true.

    But then the writer goes on to spend half the article just slagging off the national government and by analogy the current Coalition. Pointing out that FDR’s more Keynesian policies were not actually noticeably more effective than the National Government’s less Keynesian policies is reasonable if the supposed brilliance of FDR and supposed incompetence of the National Government is being used as a stick to beat the current government.

  13. Tom Usher

    RT @leftfootfwd: The biggest back to work scheme since the 30s? A history lesson for the PM: //bit.ly/fEUH4n by @GreggMcClymont #PMQs

  14. Bodva

    Do you realise that throughout the Great Depression unemployment was lower in the USSR than in UK?

    The National Government’s brilliant policies cannot have been that brilliant then. Nor Stalin’s that useless.

  15. Stephen W

    Wow, you’re right. The National Govermment and Stalinist Russia are indeed comparable. Thanks dumbass.

  16. Stephen W

    I’m sorry, that was slightly rude. Let me rephrase myself.

    The article is making a comparison between the National Government and FDR in analogy to the two suggested alternatives to responding to the current deficit and recovery, especially in terms of combating unemployment.

    This is relevant because these bear rough philosophical comparison to the suggested Labour and Coalition strategies. No-one who is not stark crazy, however, is suggesting Stalinist slave dictatorship as a further credible option, thus rendering your comparison nonsensical and totally invalid.

  17. FDR

    @ Stephen W. I do not think that is a fair reading of the article. The government brought the 1930s into it, presumably because THEY are thinking about FDR’s policies as their precedent, and they (rightly or wrongly) think that they were effective. They do think they live in the West Wing, after all. In Britain, however, it was an article of political faith that nothing could really be done about unemployment. There are legitimate questions to be asked about whether what the US attempted in the 30s was effective, consistent, or Keynsian in the postwar sense. But at least, at times, FDR allowed himself to be seen to be trying. The whole political logic underpinning the National Government was that it would be financially irresponsible to even TRY to create jobs for people. That political logic is depressingly familiar.

  18. FDR

    @ Stephen W; further to my previous comment, it also seems that the Coalition are mistaken in their comparison, since FDR relied on expansionary macroeconomic policies to create jobs for people, whereas the Coalition believe that recalibrating existing state welfare policies will remove barriers in the labour market that are stopping the unemployed getting into work. They seem to hold this view regardless of the fact that there aren’t nearly enough job vacancies for the unemployed to take, however much the welfare system bullies them into taking whatever’s on offer.

  19. Noxi

    RT @myinfamy: Biggest back to work scheme since the 30s? A history lesson for our PM //bit.ly/fEUH4n #ConDemNation

  20. Laurence Turner

    Cameron claimed at #pmqs he's introducing biggest job creation programme 'since the 1930s' – but got the history wrong //t.co/7K7P9Oe9

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