A look at Labour's compulsory jobs guarantee and the problematic narratives that inform the debate around both it and unemployment in general.
Few regular libcom.org readers will, I imagine, need it explaining why Labour's recent proposal for a compulsory jobs guarantee is a crock. However, as is often the case with Labour policies, it is being pushed as something “left” by certain people. I've seen more than a few of the proposal's supporters try to defend it in plainly socialist terms.
To give a couple of examples from Twitter:
"Nine months unpaid work versus six months paid. Amazing left can take that, and call it ceding to the right, and call it a failure."
"Labour last week announced a policy to tax the rich in order to create paid jobs in place of mandatory unpaid work, and got slated by left."
"In my day a politician pledging full-employment would have been called left-wing. Apparently if Ed & Ed do, they're Tories."
"Labour is proposing taxing the rich to give jobs to the unemployed. Anyone on the left who opposes is off their rocker."
Moreover, as Labourlist blogger Mark Ferguson points out whilst defending the idea, it's TUC policy. Chris Dillow, on Liberal Conspiracy, takes issue with the compulsory element but sees it as “the thin end of a wedge,” suggesting that “when the scheme is up and running, the compulsory element can be quietly dropped, on the grounds that it is costly to administer and enforce” and “the party can switch from subsidizing the private sector to creating new jobs through a programme of public works, in the way a proper job guarantee scheme would.”
Support for this from Labour circles should be unsurprising. Nor, really, is that it has been taken up by the broader soft left as a moderate (and perhaps slightly flawed) way for Labour to ease into “socialist” policy on jobs. Thus reinforcing the “wait til 2015 and elect Labour” model of resisting austerity.
The main problem with the compulsory job guarantee, is of course its first word. Explaining the idea on Politics Home, Ed Balls states categorically that “those who can work must be required to take up jobs or lose benefits as a result – no ifs or buts.” Just as with workfare, we are essentially talking about forced labour. Despite the caveats about “help[ing] people into work and support[ing] those who cannot,” we again come back to chucking as many people off benefits as humanly possible.
The main “left” objection to comparisons with workfare boil down to the fact that the compulsory jobs guarantee pays minimum wage. True enough, being paid minimum wage is better than being paid Job Seekers' Allowance, everything else being equal. But the minimum wage of £6.19 per hour is still substantially less than the living wage of £7.45. As someone said to me in a conversation on Twitter, this only shows that if you pay people nothing then the bare minimum becomes something to aspire to.
Aside from which, for all its unfounded optimism regarding Labour's intent, Chris Dillow's piece rightly points out that this scheme again subsidises the private sector to take on the unemployed. Though not as stark as with workfare, this still offers employers the opportunity to undercut their own staff with a temporary and highly precarious workforce. Even for those bosses who only pay the minimum wage, this effectively allows them to get paid by the government for casualisation.
All of the above should be enough to safely bury the nonsense that this idea is “left” or “socialist” in any form. But the narratives that inform the debate around this issue are also hugely problematic.
We should all be aware of the cross-party consensus to divide our class by demonising “scroungers.” The Tories may have coined “workers not shirkers” and “strivers not skivers,” but it could as easily have been Labour. This is clear when they talk about “the scourge of long term unemployment,” and point out that “Labour supports the principle of a benefits cap” but only quibble about the details. The clear message is that work is the ultimate virtue, and wilfully being out of it is simply unforgivable.
But this idea is not just being peddled by the ruling class, as a bulwark to maintain the status quo. Though for quite different reasons, the broader left also ends up pushing the same message. I've already mentioned that TUC policy offers clear support to sanctioning those who refuse paid work, and Junge Linke has dissected why the “Jobs, Growth, Justice” slogan of 2011's March for the Alternative was problematic. But even the socialist opposition to Labourism offers a similar message.
[I]f politicians are serious about getting people back into work then they would support our demands. Rather than cutting public sector jobs, the government should be making sure that people get the training and work they need. They could invest in socially useful public works to provide jobs and apprenticeships. And all of these jobs should offer a long term secure contract, paid a living wage.
Such an alternative to austerity is common across the broad spectrum of those who identify as some form of socialist. In reality, it is just the Keynesian form of capitalism, and not likely to happen any time soon without the threat of working class revolt brewing. It also, yet again, assigns the working class a role subservient to the economy.
The socialist argument is at least more sincere than the liberal one. But it still rides on the presumption that people must “earn” their living by being put to work – even if the amount earned and the type done varies. The Labour Party policy on offer thus becomes a “more realistic” version of this (leaving lefties like Chris Dillow to hope it will improve once the party takes power) and a “fair” alternative to workfare, whilst still playing to the same striver-skiver narrative.
Neoliberal and right-wing rhetoric against “scroungers” is unconvincing because of the fundamental, structural role of unemployment under capitalism. Likewise, the “left” and “socialist” version of the work ethic – expressed through demands for full employment and similar – has little merit because, going beyond capitalism, it isn't difficult to make convincing arguments for the abolition of work.
As militant and revolutionary workers, we shouldn't be looking at more palatable ways that our class can serve the economy. The ruling class can do that well enough themselves if they need to. Our task is to organise and cause enough disruption that they feel the need to at all, and to build the movement that ultimately doesn't seek concessions from capital, but its destruction.