Why continued unemployment is in the government’s interest

Scapegoating benefit claimants allows the government to deflect attention from its own economic failures, and to make more ideologically motivated cuts


The government has just announced plans to oblige new Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants aged between 18-21 to take a three-week ‘Intensive Activity Programme’  that will teach them everything from – wait for it – submitting a job application to writing a CV.

Proposed by paymaster general Matt Hancock and his ‘Earn or Learn Taskforce’, this initiative comes amid two consecutive months of increased unemployment figures and the ever-present shame of a national ‘handout culture‘ that supposedly has ‘scroungers’ refusing to accept the jobs that are waiting for them with open arms.

According to Mr Hancock, the government wants to foster a ‘no excuses’ work ethic, one that will provide jobseekers with all the help they need to find a placement within six months of beginning the programme.

Yet contrary to what Hancock would have us believe, this scheme is not so much part of the government’s concerted effort to eradicate ‘long-term youth unemployment’, as it is yet another installment in their strategy of maligning the voiceless and vulnerable in order to reap political capital.

Throughout their five years of office they’ve introduced various measures to stem the tide of inveterate benefit claimants, yet rather than reduce the nation’s unemployment figures the only thing we have to thank such measures for is the illusion that the government is ‘tough’ on those who are ‘too good for work’ (to borrow a phrase from Iain Duncan-Smith).

Take the DWP’s flagship ‘Work Programme’, implemented in 2011 with the aim of  ‘supporting people who are at risk of becoming long-term unemployed to find work.’ 

Well, it’s largely been an unmitigated disaster, with only 10 per cent of the 1,200,000 participants who signed up to it in June 2011 managing to find any kind of employment by June 2013.

Its detractors portrayed it as ‘worse than doing nothing’, a criticism which was borne out when it emerged in March 2014 that only 48,000 people out of the 1.5 million people it had ‘helped’ had secured a long-term position.

Given such pitiful figures, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the scheme functioned less to heal Britain’s employment statistics and more to present the government as being unflinchingly ruthless when it comes to ‘spongers‘.

In other words, these ‘spongers’ are nothing more to the government than a convenient political football it kicks around, predominantly to gain votes from those who’ve bought the lie that there’s a substantial underclass of people living comfortably off benefits with no aspiration whatsoever to work.

Not only that, but this myth of a workshy class furnishes Whitehall with an ideal diversion from its own failures to place the British economy on a healthier and less volatile footing.

Its mulish path of austerity has done little to prevent either UK economic growth from slowing to 0.3 per cent  or unemployment from rising in the second quarter of the year, so it needs an appropriate group of mute scapegoats to take the heat for its mistakes.

This is precisely why it whipped out yet another tokenistic escapade to get the ‘skivers’ back to work. It would do much better to concentrate on strengthening the economy and creating more of the jobs that most unemployed individuals so desperately want.

Unfortunately, this isn’t very likely, since aside from enabling Downing Street to be seen to be doing something about unemployment without actually doing something, their clamp-down on the so-called dependency culture also enables them to make more cuts. 

This government wants to cut for the sake of it, and Mr Hancock’s most recent initiative will permit them to do just that, since it threatens to remove the benefits of any new Jobseeker between 18-21 years of age who doesn’t participate in the ‘intensive’ course within six months of first signing on.

Hence, it continues a venerable tradition which, in the year leading up to April 2014, saw almost one in six claimants facing penalties that often resulted in considerable hardship and stress.

No doubt this new plan will cause thousands of jobseekers hardship and stress as well, yet it seems that this government’s position depends more on vilifying such people than on providing them with any genuine support.

In fact, their commitment to Thatcherite low-inflationary monetary policies forswears them against lowering the jobless figures below the ‘natural rate of unemployment’ (aka the ‘long-term equilibrium unemployment rate’), which the Monetary Policy Committee and Bank of England recently estimated at around 5 per cent.

So don’t expect them to eliminate unemployment any time soon, or to stop scoring points off the ‘shirkers’ they wouldn’t want in work anyway.

Simon Chandler is a journalist who writes about music, culture and politics. Follow him on Twitter

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