Cures for Unemployment

Phil Jones

Through a summer of U-turns, the government has been clear about one thing. The furlough scheme will not be extended. When it ends on 31 October, those still on furlough – currently numbering 9.6 million – will either be forced to return to their jobs in the middle of the pandemic, or will find they have no job at all. ‘It’s wrong,’ according to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, ‘to keep people trapped in a situation and pretend there is always a job that they can go back to.’

But most people would probably prefer that to being unemployed. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, 1.3 million jobs will be lost if furlough ends on its intended date. As Germany, France and other countries extend their schemes, could another British government U-turn be in the making? Boris Johnson admits the UK ‘is now seeing a second wave’, and a growing number of local lockdowns, if not another national one, seem increasingly likely. Yet cross-party calls for a ‘targeted’ extension to furlough have been ignored. The shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, yesterday put forward a plan to retain workers on shorter hours using state subsidies (much like the French and German schemes). The government seems unlikely to adopt it.

There are no good reasons for furlough to end in October. The reason most consistently given – with an irony apparently lost on the government – is workers’ health. In an interview with the Evening Standard, Johnson emphasised that long-term furlough ‘is not healthy’, his words echoing those of a senior government source back in May, who worried that people had become ‘addicted to the scheme’ and needed to be ‘weaned’ off it. The right-wing press harbour similar concerns. The Times ran a piece on the ‘dangers of becoming addicted to Rishi Sunak’s job furlough scheme’, while the Spectator worried that ‘furlough would soon be a national addiction.’

There’s a long history of describing laid-off workers using metaphors of disease. The first comprehensive policy effort to deal with unemployment in the UK was the Labour Exchanges Act of 1909. ‘Relief works cannot seriously be regarded as a cure for unemployment,’ Gavin Hamilton said, proposing the bill in the House of Lords. ‘At the best they are only a palliative. What is wanted is not a drug to still the pain of this disease, but a cure which will reach deep down to its roots.’

Only recently, though, has unemployment come to be seen as a disease of the individual rather than social body. The idea that furlough could be addictive has a certain amount in common with the quasi-therapeutic discourse that went with New Labour’s outsourcing of jobseeker schemes to private welfare-to-work providers. Workshops hosted by the contractor A4E encouraged participants to see their failure to find work as the result of ‘low self-esteem’. Low labour demand and a saturated job market were no longer the problem. As one participant put it, ‘it was simply our mindset that was the barrier.’

But it was under the coalition government and the chaotic tenure of Iain Duncan Smith as work and pensions secretary that the rhetoric really took hold. Work is ‘good for your health’, he said in 2015. Duncan Smith’s pet project of Universal Credit was rolled out, along with significant cuts to disability welfare and the hurried introduction of Employment and Support Allowance, forcing more than a million people back to work, with sometimes fatal results. In a perverse effort to defend the mess, Duncan Smith doubled down on claims that employment is ‘like a health treatment’. He even said: ‘Work actually helps free people.’

The same empty dogma haunts the words of furlough’s critics and reluctant advocates. Though once a decent palliative, the medicine is now said to be worse than the disease, affecting the smooth running of markets and their actors, who are ultimately supposed to take care of themselves. Never mind that ending furlough will only further reduce people’s capacity to find work, as the ranks of the unemployed swell and competition intensifies for the few opportunities available. Cheaper solutions to unemployment are undoubtedly more attractive to the treasury than a scheme that costs around £14 billion a month. But existing schemes like Universal Credit have so far proven insufficient and will not magically become any more effective at the end of October.

Left out of treasury calculations is the needless loss of life. Michael Gove said this morning – and Boris Johnson confirmed this afternoon – that people should work from home if they can, though ‘if you are in a Covid-secure workplace, then you should be there if your job requires it.’ Those who leave furlough lucky enough still to have work will – if their employers require it – return to the unavoidably confined spaces of shops and offices, often travelling there on crowded buses and trains. Factor in the ongoing test and trace debacle, making workplace breakouts difficult to identify and contain, and it begins to look like a perfect storm on the horizon. We can only hope for yet another government U-turn.


  • 22 September 2020 at 9:33pm
    Hop Wechsler says:
    To paraphrase Molly Ivins, "Work makes people free" sounded better in the original German.

    • 23 September 2020 at 10:16pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Hop Wechsler
      Yes, an unfortunate phrasing.
      But work does, actually, free people: financially, morally, socially, physically, sometimes intellectually, but always purposefully.
      I speak from experience and even the shittiest tasks strengthen my sense of self-worth. I am freer when I have a worthwhile task to perform.

    • 24 September 2020 at 12:41pm
      Hop Wechsler says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Having been unemployed myself, I don’t disagree. Unemployment decreases quality of life even in countries where the welfare state hasn’t been completely dismantled; see, e.g., But “freedom” in the unemployment context tends to be Orwellian, where one has the freedom to either enlist in the reserve army of labor, subject to dehumanizing terms and conditions, or conscientiously object by starving to death.

    • 24 September 2020 at 4:39pm
      Peterson_the man with no name says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Weird. I've always found the opposite: even worthwhile tasks I might ordinarily quite enjoy become dreary chores when I have to do them 'for work'. And if I ever reached the point where my sense of self-worth depended on my job, I would kill myself.

      I've sometimes wondered why right-wingers always justify cutting benefits with obvious nonsense about the joy of hard work, instead of stating the obvious truth: that no sane person ever worked unless they needed the money.

    • 25 September 2020 at 6:54pm
      Graucho says: @ Peterson_the man with no name
      Any number of witticisms from Oscar on this. Work fascinates me, I can sit and stare at it for hours. Work is the curse of the drinking classes. I prefer what an Uncle of mine said. If work was all it was cracked up to be, the rich would do it.

    • 25 September 2020 at 9:13pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Peterson_the man with no name
      I beg to disagree. Work is of course about the money but its absence is definitely about more than the money.

  • 23 September 2020 at 12:03am
    Graucho says:
    If we ever get out of this hole, it would be nice to have a program that generated jobs that created the things we really need like housing, transport links, doctors, diagnostics. Apprenticeships for plumbers, carpenters, electricians, gas men, lab technicians. Medical and engineering scholarships. Just look for where there is a need and then create jobs that will satisfy the need. A novel approach compared to the old one of manipulating the unemployment stats to make them look good, one has to be an optimist in these times.

  • 23 September 2020 at 2:42pm
    XopherO says:
    Didn't Keynes argue that employing the unemployed to dig holes and fill them in again when there was a depression would put money in circulation rather than let the economy spiral down (which Austerity gave us), but it would be better to employ them to build schools, hospitals etc.? This government has spent more than Corbyn's policies for 5 years in just 6 months - essentially digging and filling in holes - but cried 'economic madness' and won the election at the time. Among all its other stupidities, disasters and failures, it has shown a grievous lack of imagination, exacerbated by wanting to keep everything under the control of an Old Etonian cabal of dunces. Heathcote Williams surely began the Dunciad that must be written about this in his Boris Johnson: The Beast of Brexit - A Study in Depravity. I think 'depraved' is a pretty good adjective for the lot of them, including Cummings.

  • 25 September 2020 at 3:48am
    Simon Wood says:
    This government have emphasised again and again that we cannot afford Britain. How many more times? We have the sixth biggest economy in the world and can expect "a glorious future" outside the EU with real glory and lions. However, we cannot afford Britain, no matter how much we keep our heads down and work hard.

    This is not very inspirational. In fact the government doesn't seem to have any decent slogans, let alone ideas.

    This is not what we signed up for when we were born. You would think a quality government would come up with a quality vision of Britain surviving against the odds. But we can't afford that, either.

    • 25 September 2020 at 4:18pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Simon Wood
      ‘You would think a quality government ... ’ A quality government would, but this is the worst government since at least 1939. When was the last time a British Cabinet has been composed of such mediocrities? When was the last time we’ve had a Prime Minister so pathologically dishonest and narcissistic, so lazy, so absolutely not up to the job? I can only see this as karma for empire: we vaingloriously bestrode the world, and now we are led by little people filled with the empty dreams of former triumph.

    • 26 September 2020 at 9:24am
      ianbrowne says: @ Joe Morison
      I wouldn't say this is the worst government since 1939. There are lots of contenders for that title and if you don't happen to live in Britain you have lots of reasons to despise any number of governments. The Iraq war was only one example of British adventurism. The end of Empire hardly covered Britain in glory - India, Malaya, Kenya, Suez etc.

      But when we're thinking about unemployment we should not forget Thatcher, who inherited a reasonably stable and improving economic situation from Jim Callaghan and completely trashed it.

      Three and a half million people became unemployed and British manufacturing was all but destroyed. Despite the insistence of neoliberal economists that these were simply firms which were not competitive, it seems that the principal reason was Thatcher's determination to maintain a 'strong' pound. Having only the most rudimentary grasp of economics, according to Nigel Lawson, Thatcher thought the word strong meant 'Britain is showing it is much stronger than those bloody Germans and their deutschmark, so the stronger the better'. She didn't realise that the pound was overvalued by as much as 40%. This was catastrophic for exporters and catastrophic for companies whose main competitors in the British domestic market were foreign firms. The strong pound was tantamount to a 40% increase in the price of their products in comparison with those of their overseas competitors. Unsurprisingly people stopped buying their products and opted for the cheaper ones made by their overseas competitors.

      It is unlikely that the effects of the covid-19 recession will be anything like as severe as the effects of the first Thatcher recession. But nobody actually cared about unemployment in the early 1980s, except of course those people who lost their jobs. Mass unemployment was confined to the areas we now call the "left-behind" regions. The Southeast of England, and particularly the middle class in the South East of England, became more and more prosperous, as the rest of England was left to fester.

      If the attempts at recovery from the covid-19 recession are not spread evenly throughout Britain then we can expect some strange political developments in the next 5 to 10 years.

    • 26 September 2020 at 3:14pm
      Joe Morison says: @ ianbrowne
      We’re using ‘worst’ in different ways, we’re not talking about the same thing. You, not unreasonably, are talking morally - measuring the overall contribution to human misery that our various governments have made. Given this government’s impact so far, you are undoubtedly right; but it’s still early days. On the international stage, I don’t see any hunger for illegal wars in this administration; but if Trump wins a second term, who knows what hideous folly he might embark on with our support. On the domestic front, again, it’s too early to say. The issue here isn’t so much the coronacrisis as Brexit. If we get a deal loosely tying us to the EU, then it won’t be as bad as Thatcher, but if we don’t and we end up (as many leading Brexiteers want) with a massively deregulated, pure free market, it will make Thatcherism look like a gentle foretaste.

      What I’m talking about when I call this government the worst is not a judgment of morals but one of competence. Say what you like about Thatcher, and you, Ian Browne, can certainly say a devastating lot, but she achieved what she set out to do. When she took over, Britain was seen (justly or not) as the sick man of Europe and our standing in the world had never been lower. By the time she left we were, for all the human cost and unequal distribution of it, a wealthy country again; we stood tall, her policies had been adopted all over the world, and this country was hugely respected - not liked, perhaps, but respected. Thatcher’s Cabinet may have had many ghastly people in it who wreaked great damage, but they were big beasts; they had intellect and vision and the will to implement it.
      This current lot, in comparison, are ineffectual minnows. Considerably nastier than those Thatcher presided over, their only virtue is that they don’t have what it takes to realize that nastiness - at least not yet, with another four years of Trump and no EU deal, anything is possible.

      I suppose I’d sum it up by saying that previous governments may have been detestable but they didn’t, as this one is on course to do, make of us an international irrelevance. They were shameful but not embarrassing.

    • 26 September 2020 at 5:09pm
      ianbrowne says: @ Joe Morison
      Albeit I have something of a hobby horse about Thatcher my real point was about regional inequality.

      The first Thatcher recession of the early 80s was mainly confined to the left-behind areas. Johnson's inept government will have to do something to alleviate the effects of the oncoming recession. One of the goals David Cameron set himself in his coalition with the Lib Dems was regional development, by which he meant lessening the extent to which the left-behind areas felt left behind. In about 2014 Colin Hay wrote an interesting study of what Cameron achieved. I'm sure it won't surprise you if I say that Colin Hay's conclusion was the Cameron achieved absolutely nothing in terms of reducing regional inequality. Unsurprisingly one of the main factors in the brexit vote was that the left-behind areas realised they had been left behind. When Cameron spoke about the EU bringing prosperity to Britain they looked around and asked themselves "What prosperity?"

      Whatever steps are going to be taken to try and ameliorate the effects of the oncoming recession, Johnson would be well advised to use it as an opportunity to address the question of regional inequality and regional development. But I very much doubt that he will do that.

      In 2012 Robert Colls, with more than a nod towards George Orwell, wrote an article, 'The Lion and the Eunuch'. He prophesied strange times ahead. He didn't foresee the brexit vote but there is enough in that article to make it clear did this was just the sort of strange time that Colls had in mind. I think that if attempts to ameliorate the effects of the recession are largely limited to the middle class and to the South East of England, we are likely to see more very strange times.

      The myth of Thatcher's competence has now become so deeply embedded in the English psyche that whenever I talk to people about Thatcher's ineptitude, I feel like Galileo trying to persuade the mediaeval church that the Earth goes around the sun. But the reality is she really wasn't very good. When people talk about the transformation of Britain it's as well to remember that by 1990 she had received a 200 billion pound windfall - the receipts from North Sea oil and privatisation.

      Conservatives used to talk about the Labour Party needing a magic money tree. Between 1980 and 1990 Thatcher really did have a magic money tree, mainly North Sea oil which produced about 150 billion, and a nice little bonus from the receipts from privatisation.

      It would be nice to think that some of this money was spent on education, on improving the health system, on improving infrastructure, on state funded research and development, and even on regional development, given the geographical distribution of the effects of deindustrialisation. But actually most of it went on tax cuts for the middle and upper classes, largely located in the South East of of England and the metropolitan cities.

      The phrase "the sick man of Europe" has now become so much of a cliche that it's repeated everytime Thatchers 1979 election victory is mentioned. It was made by the American ambassador when Jim Callaghan was prime minister. Overseas Ambassadors really should stay out of domestic politics. He should have known better than to say anything so stupid. There is no reason to think that he had access to any special information unavailable to the rest of Britain. It was simply a partisan comment by an uninformed foreigner.

      I think it was John Stuart Mill who said, "Anyone who thinks that truth wins out in the long run has never studied history." I doubt that people will ever accept the truth about Thatchers's time in office, least of all those who live in the south east of England.

    • 26 September 2020 at 8:04pm
      Joe Morison says: @ ianbrowne
      Even accepting your evaluation of Thatcher; in terms of competence, she still towers above Johnson as a mastodon to a mole. As for morals, one doesn’t have to like hers to accept that at least she had them; Johnson is a value free husk who cares only for his own aggrandizement.

    • 27 September 2020 at 10:58am
      XopherO says: @ Joe Morison
      Up to now I thought the Heath government was the worst, also with pigmies for ministers. It was incompetent like Johnson's. There were the strikes, the three day week - if only Callaghan had supported instead of sabotaging Barbara Castle's 'In Place of Strife' - not perfect but look what the unions got under Thatcher. Bloody Sunday. So two things stick out for me: imprisonment without trial in NI which massively fuelled the conflict, and abolishing registered drug addict status which let in the mafias and connected soft and hard drugs out on the streets - Heath was such a puritan. Both cost the country millions and thousands of lives and suffering. Johnson doesn't quite match up to this yet, but it looks like he soon will.

    • 27 September 2020 at 3:44pm
      ianbrowne says: @ XopherO
      I think Heath's worst minister was Reginald Maudling who was the Minister for Northern Ireland.

    • 27 September 2020 at 3:52pm
      ianbrowne says: @ XopherO
      Maudling with an alcoholic, an absolutely incorrigible drunk. He was usually so drunk after lunch that civil servants refused to schedule meetings for him after 2 p.m. By that time he was often inapable of coherent speech.

      When Bernadette McCaliskey (Bernadette Devlin was she was at that time) stepped across the floor of the house and punched Maudling, after he told lie after lie about the situation in Northern Ireland, the House of Commons rallied round "poor old Reggie", and pretended he was just a good old boy who liked the odd drink now and again. He died of cirrhosis in about 1977, if I remember, and from the eulogies delivered in the House of Commons you would have thought that it was Marcus Aurelius they were talking about, rather than a corrupt old drunk.

    • 28 September 2020 at 8:35am
      Joe Morison says: @ XopherO
      On the other hand: Ian Macleod, Peter Carrington, and Willie Whitelaw - all substantial figures and decent enough given that they were Tory politicians. Macleod understood before most in his party that the days of empire were over, was a renowned orator, hired Alan Watkins when he was editor of the Spectator, and was clever enough to earn a substantial income from playing bridge. Carrington was a genuinely honourable man, possibly the last such to serve in Cabinet, certainly the last to resign because his department had messed up. As for Whitelaw, he had his faults but I will always admire how he reacted to the IRA’s attacks when Home Secretary: as he used to tell it, ‘After each new outrage, Special Branch would come to me with a list of the new powers they wanted. I’d read through it, scrunch it up, throw it in the bin, and say, “We wouldn’t be much of a country if we tore up ancient liberties just because of a few deranged hoodlums,” and they’d laugh and say, “Oh well, it was worth a go.”’ Compare that to Blair after 9/11 who proudly said, ‘We asked the police what new powers they needed, and we gave them to them.’

      I would say that any one of those three were worth more than our entire current Cabinet put together.

    • 28 September 2020 at 12:00pm
      XopherO says: @ Joe Morison
      OK, but what did they do to stop the Conservative and UNIONIST party from overturning Wilson's approach, blocking essential reforms in NI and stirring up even more hatred? So, I still say the worst Tory Government for decades. Blair's cod-Labour governments the worst on the 'left'. And the malign influence of the Iraq war will continue to dog Labour while there remain unrepentant senior members who voted for the war, and who conspired against Corbyn, and to lose two elections to get themselves and their fellow-travellers back in charge.

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