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