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The truth about the causes and consequences of unemployment is being buried beneath a blanket of lies, damn lies and statistics, says Sharon Clarke

The Great Jobs Fraud

The missing million

Figures released on 18 February showed that official unemployment in the UK had passed the three million mark again in January. That would be bad enough. But, in fact, real unemployment is far higher than the government's phoney statistics suggest.

Since 1982 the Tories have made more than 20 changes to the way in which unemployment figures are calculated. Almost all of these statistical tricks have had the effect of reducing the headline total. Then there are the large numbers of 'hidden unemployed', who have never appeared in the official statistics.

The hidden unemployed include thousands who are working for their dole money on government 'training' schemes, particularly 16 and 17-year olds on compulsory work programmes. And a large number of unemployed women do not appear in the official figures either.

In order to be registered as officially jobless, you must be claiming benefit. But many women cannot claim benefits, either because their partner claims (married or cohabiting women have no independent right to social security), or because the women have not paid sufficient national insurance contributions in the past. Why don't women pay enough national insurance to get unemployment benefit? Usually because their responsibilities for childcare and housework trap them in low-paid, part-time jobs, or because they have time off work to raise children. When it comes to adding up the unemployed, wives and mothers simply don't count.

The upshot of all these statistical sleights-of-hand is that the real unemployment figure, instead of just inching past the three million mark, is over four million and rising.

The myth of the 'yuppie slump'

A widely accepted idea about unemployment in the nineties is that architects, lawyers and other middle class professionals in the south-east of England have been among the hardest hit.

This is a useful notion for the authorities. It endorses the view that 'we're all in this together' which the government has used to press us to make sacrifices. It can be presented as a sort of advert for Mr Major's 'classless society', in which we all reap the benefits of the good times and all tighten our belts in the bad. And it can even serve as a populist palliative to unemployed workers, who can console themselves with the thought that at least 'those bastards' are suffering too.

But the 'yuppie slump' is largely a myth. Although unemployment rates among middle class professionals have risen this time around more than in past recessions, it is working class people, north and south, who have taken the real hammering.

The service sector has lost a lot of jobs - yet manufacturing industry has lost still more, despite the fact that it employed only a third as many people as services when the slump began in 1989. Since then, almost half a million jobs have gone in the service sector; meanwhile, manufacturing employment has fallen by more than 700 000. The unemployment rate among manufacturing workers has risen by 5.8 per cent, compared with a rise of 2.4 per cent in banking and finance.

Even those figures don't tell the whole truth. Most job losses in services have not touched the professionals. They have hit the newer sections of the working class - the thousands of bank clerks, VDU operators, shop staff and others who might wear a suit to work instead of overalls, but are still at the bottom of the pay ladder and the top of the redundancy list.

The south has certainly been hit hard by this recession; more than 40 per cent of total job losses in the past two years were in the south-east (including London). As a consequence, regional variations in unemployment rates have narrowed significantly. This only goes to prove that, contrary to modern prejudice, the south is not entirely populated by middle class professionals. Instead it is home to the largest section of the working class, who have joined workers in the rest of Britain in the firing-line.

Jobless scapegoats

The job fraud is not only about fiddling the figures. Just as importantly, it involves spreading misleading arguments about who and what is to blame for unemployment.

The fact that mass unemployment has become a permanent feature of British life is a serious indictment of capitalist society. The government, the media and the employers have had to come up with a diversionary explanation. They have hit upon the handy idea of blaming the unemployed themselves for unemployment.

Elsewhere in this issue of Living Marxism, Kate Lawrence examines how the debate about workfare schemes has been used to scapegoat the long-term unemployed in particular. And the fraud goes further. On the day the three million jobless figures were released, for example, the Financial Times asked why unemployment now seemed so hard to reduce. 'The explanation', it concluded, 'lies in the attributes and aspirations of the unemployed themselves' (18 February 1993).

The essential argument here is that unemployment is high because workers in Britain do not have the skills or the will required to work today. That patronising assumption is implicitly shared by all those, such as the Labour Party leaders, who stress the importance of 'training' as a solution to unemployment.

The underlying message seems to be that the capitalist economy has plenty of jobs to offer, but that workers in Britain are somehow unfit to do them. It conjures up images of Jobcentres full of vacancy adverts which the illiterate unemployed cannot even read. This is obviously a convenient line of argument for the authorities. But it turns reality on its head.

The reason why millions of jobs have been cut is that, however skilled a workforce might be, capitalists will not employ labour unless they can make a sufficiently high profit. As profitability has fallen for British companies, so unemployment has risen. And as the government seeks to ease the tax burden on corporate profits, so it is cutting back spending on jobs in the public sector.

Unemployment today is not caused by inadequate workers. It stems from the inadequacies of a system that is based upon production for private profit rather than social need.

The upturn illusion

The last resort of the government fraudsters is to suggest that, even if unemployment is rather bad just at the moment, things will soon improve when the economic upturn comes. What they fail to point out is that, in the nineties, one person's upturn is another person's ticket to the unemployment statistics.

In these times of slump, any upturn in the British economy will be purely statistical. It will not involve a genuine regeneration of society. It might benefit those few whose fortunes depend upon the upward movement of shares on the stock market. But it will not come to the rescue of those desperately looking for an increase in decent vacancies on the job market.

Worse still, any such upturn will be brought about partly by increasing unemployment. By closing unprofitable enterprises and cutting back costs, employers might be able to give themselves a short-term boost to productivity and profits. But their breathing-space will be bought at the expense of working class living standards.

This is why an upturn for them would be nothing much for us to get excited about. Whatever happens next on the swings and roundabouts of other economic statistics, we can be sure that real unemployment will continue to rise. And, despite their assurances to the contrary, nobody knows where it will stop. There is no natural barrier to rising redundancies.

The one thing for certain is that the more jobs are lost, the more fiddles and lies will be found to explain away the mass unemployment which blights all of our lives.
(Additional research by Tracey Lauder)
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 54, April 1993

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