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.

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