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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 June 2007, 15:43 GMT 16:43 UK
Unemployment: Forgotten issue?
1979 Tory election poster
The Tories made unemployment a key election issue in the 1970s

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

Slaying the dragon of unemployment is always cited by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as one of New Labour's proudest achievements.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair
Joblessness has slipped down the agenda in the Brown and Blair era

When Mr Blair came to power in 1997, just over 2 million people were out of work. Labour spent millions seeking to cut dole queues with programmes such as the New Deal for the young unemployed.

But in recent months the rate has been creeping up again and currently stands at 1.7 million, according to the Office for National Statistics, which uses the widely-recognised International Labour Organisation (ILO) counting system.

Although the way unemployment is measured has changed over the years, both the ILO measure, which counts the number of people seeking work, and the claimant count are roughly the same as they were in 1979. In percentage terms it is slightly higher at 5.5%, compared with 4.7% in 1979.

At that time it was seen as a national scandal, with the Conservatives claiming in an iconic general election poster "Labour isn't working".

Unemployment: 1.4m
Public concern: 53% say it is biggest issue facing UK
Unemployment: 1.7m
Public concern: 7% say it is biggest issue facing UK

Source: Unemployment: ONS Labour Force Survey. Public concern: Ipsos Mori

But it is hard to see the Conservatives trying to make political capital out of unemployment in the same way today.

The party was contacted several times during the writing of this article but eventually declined to comment, saying it was still researching the issue.

It is probably happy not to remind voters that unemployment subsequently rose above 3 million after Margaret Thatcher won that 1979 election.

'Unacceptably high'

Labour admits there are "pockets" of high unemployment in some parts of the country but stresses that, while it may be a tragedy for the individuals concerned, it is not a problem for the country as a whole.

When unemployment was at this level in the 1970s it was a sign of disaster that brought Thatcher in
Paul Holmes, Lib Dem MP

Jim Murphy, minister for work, said: "By whatever measure you look at, unemployment in Britain is down under Labour.

"Numbers claiming jobseekers' allowance has almost halved since 1997, ILO unemployment is down 350,000. There are 2.5 million more people in work under Labour with 900,000 fewer claiming out of work benefits."

Employment relations minister Jim Fitzpatrick describes unemployment in his Poplar and Canning Town constituency, in London's East End, where 9.4% are out of work, as "unacceptably high".

But he says it is "not an issue nationally" because Labour put the creation of jobs "at the top of its agenda" when it came to power.

He insists government initiatives are under way to ensure his constituents benefit more from "all that is going on in the East End" - the area is home to the booming banks and media companies of Canary Wharf but few local people work there.

He denies Labour is resting on its laurels over unemployment, although he concedes that more than a million people "sitting around doing nothing is not good for UK PLC".

Incapacity benefit

Whenever he is tackled about job losses in the Commons, Tony Blair says the strength of Britain's economy and its flexible labour market means sacked workers can retrain to find alternative employment.

Canary Wharf
Canary Wharf is in one of the most deprived parts of the UK

He also likes to boast that employment is at record levels in the UK.

It is certainly true that more people are in work than ever before, thanks largely to a booming service sector and a big increase in women taking low paid part-time jobs.

But there remains a high level of economic inactivity too - with 2.44 million people on incapacity benefit, 1.4 million more than in 1979.

Politicians in the 1970s despaired when unemployment and inflation were both increasing.

Now unemployment and employment are going up at the same time.

This, says economist Ian Brinkley of the Work Foundation, is because "the number of people actively seeking work over the past 18 months has been rising faster than the number of jobs".

Pension problems

One reason is immigration, he says, with record numbers of migrant workers coming in from Eastern Europe to fill low paid and temporary vacancies.

Another reason, he adds, is that more people are being forced to work beyond retirement age because of problems with their pension schemes.

"People are more inclined to keep on working, rather than drop out of the labour market in their early sixties.

"We are also starting to see some of the results of the government's drive to get older people back into work."

Despite this, opinion polls suggest jobs are no longer a major concern for voters in the UK.

"We have become immune to the fact that we don't have full employment in the way that we used to have," says Liberal Democrat MP Paul Holmes, whose Chesterfield constituency was recently hit by the closure of an engineering plant.

"When unemployment was at this level in the 1970s it was a sign of disaster that brought Thatcher in."

'National outcry'

Unemployment has fallen significantly in Chesterfield since Labour came to power and is now almost back to the level it was in 1981.

But there are still parts of the town where it remains stubbornly high, says Mr Holmes, and if this was repeated across the country there would be "a national outcry".

Yosser Hughes from 1980s TV drama Boys from the Blackstuff
TV drama highlighted the plight of the unemployed in the 1980s

The reason there is not an outcry of any kind at all is that most people feel better off, he argues, even if their sense of well-being is fuelled by the easy availability of credit.

"We are the most affluent we have ever been. Even people on welfare benefits have an OK base on which to live," he adds.

So how high would unemployment have to climb before it became a major political issue again in the UK?

Peter Spencer, chief economist at accountants Ernst and Young, says it could reach as much as 3.5 million "without there being riots on the streets".


But he does not foresee this happening - and he says it is far too pessimistic to compare Britain's economy today to that of the strife-torn late 1970s.

We are about to sign agreements for the Olympics and the construction trade so that the jobs in London go to people who are trained up here in Britain to get the jobs that are available
Gordon Brown

Britain has low unemployment compared with most of its competitors and unlike in the 1970s, when the country was regularly crippled by strikes, Britain's economy actually functions properly.

When workers get laid off it is not too difficult for them to find alternative employment, he says.

Recent research by trade union Amicus suggests finding a new job might not be as easy as Mr Spencer suggests.

The union found that two years on from the collapse of car maker MG Rover, almost a quarter of the workers are without a job and many of the rest have been forced to take lower paid employment.

'Electoral suicide'

One of the themes emerging from Labour's deputy leadership contest is working class job insecurity, with one candidate saying not addressing concerns would be "electoral suicide" for Labour.

Gordon Brown has this week pledged to ensure that 200,000 jobs in construction, the hospitality industry and the financial services for the London Olympics go to British workers.

"We are about to sign agreements for the Olympics and the construction trade so that the jobs in London go to people who are trained up here in Britain to get the jobs that are available," he said.

"I want to ensure that by working with employers in all sectors we can make sure that people have the skills and are given the help so that the jobs, when they come available, can go to those people in Britain who are registered and looking for jobs at the moment," said Mr Brown.

The announcement was dismissed as a union jack waving "gimmick" by opposition parties, who said it was impractical and unlikely to stop skilled workers from outside the UK getting jobs.

But, at a time when unemployment has become a virtual non-issue among the big parties at Westminster, it may be a sign that among the Labour Party members Gordon Brown has spent the past few weeks meeting on his "listening and learning" tour, it is a far more pressing concern.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I think we live in a very divided country. I have no doubt that unemployment is not a factor in many places in the UK , particularly in the Southeast . Where I live it is a very serious problem which is almost completely ignored by politicians .
Mark, Hull , UK

Surely Gordon Brown is mistaken to think he can limit those working on the construction project for the Olympics to those of a British workforce. Surely under EU freedom of movement he would have to allow at least all first level EU citizens to take those roles.
Phil Millard, Luxembourg

How can a government affect unemployment rates these days when any employment created by clever schemes is going to be soaked up by an uncontrolled flow of migration from Eastern Europe? I suspect that any attempt to favour British workers over EU workers would foul EU laws.
JJW Spencer, Shifnal

Unemployment isn't an issue today as so many people believe it seems to be perfectly acceptable (even encouraged!) not to have a job and claim dole.
John Neal, Southampton

Why isn't it an issue? That's a no-brainer. The media - especially the broadcast media - today is dominated by people who are generally left-wing. To discuss high levels of unemployment would raise nasty questions like, why haven't these people got the skills they need after decades of socialised education, and if we have such unemployment, why do we need lots of immigrants?
Alex Swanson, Milton Keynes, UK

I've been living in Northern Ireland for most of my life and finding a job relevant to my degree to is down right impossible. I have done all the necessary add-ons to try and get a career and now i find I'm stuck in 1 year contracts or temp jobs. Employers are not willing to give experience but are very quick to look for it when it comes to a job. According to government guidelines i don't qualify for new deal or any apprentice deals and the one i did take part in has really done me no favours. So why is it that my age group has to suffer for government policy?
Heather Orr, Londonderry

'When workers get laid off it is not too difficult for them to find alternative employment' What a joke. I was laid off in January and have been trying to get work since then. The only jobs around are low paid ones and when you are over 40, like me, you get told a lot that you're over qualified so they don't give you a chance. Employment agencies are next to useless, they advertise jobs that don't exist and send you to interviews for inappropriate roles. Also employers offer you less money if they know you are out of work. I can see myself having to re-train after 23 years in the printing trade, all that experience going to waste.
Neal, Wokingham

Having lived through the 1970's ( I was born in the 1950's) I am now approaching my retirement on 'superannuation' I doubt very much I will be able to get a job as a retired/ unemployed/ 50 plus male. but I won't feature in the statistics as I will be in receipt of my pension ( not the largest income in the world!). I will be worse than unemployed I will be unemployable due to age! I don't see the Government resolving that statistic either in the near future. I think its time to emigrate to warmer climes and leave this country to sink in the mire its got itself into and take all my money with me.
Steve Maguire, West Midlands

The other point not raised in the article is that there are also almost as many vacancies on the job market as there are unemployed. In particular there are far more vacancies than there are long term unemployed. It is true that there are still black spots of high unemployment, but there is still an attitude amongst some people that certain jobs are beneath them and therefore they would prefer to sit on benefits rather than getting a job. Within 20 miles of Longbridge there are probably thousands of job vacancies and maybe people should be more willing to take a job as a stepping stone rather than sitting back waiting for something to happen. I trained as a lawyer and after qualification found it very difficult to get my first job in law. I worked for almost 2 years doing a variety of jobs, all of which paid less than a trainee solicitor's wage because I wasn't prepared to sit around claiming benefit when there were jobs available.
David, Bristol, UK

I'd be interested to know how many of that 1.7m are unemployed through choice. A large proportion of the unemployed choose that lifestyle. This won't change unless the government gets tougher on dishing out benefits.
Anne, Glasgow

We all voted Tory in 1979 and then saw unemployment hit the roof at 4 million under Thatcher. She then won two landslide elections in the 80s. Unemployment has never been an electoral issue since the late 70s.
Amos Parr, Stamford Lincs

The BBC is sadly comparing apples with oranges. In 1979 there were many more big employers than they are now. When some of those went out of business the unemployment figures jumped dramatically. These days it's large numbers of small business that go out of business and it simply isn't newsworthy. It's not unlike the situation where about 10 people a day are killed on our roads, but only when a large number die together is it reported.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

When I was growing up in the Midlands a Thursday ritual was queueing at the post office with my father to get our dole money, later in London I used to queue to get the "benefits" my Mother was entitled too as a low earning single parent. With the expansion of direct payment into a bank account and no cash benefits collected anymore the eyesore of a public claiming money has all but vanished, this lack of visibility alone accounts for some of the ignorance and passivity about unemployment in modern culture. If we can't see it we ignore it, if we had 3 million (unemployed and disability allowance) people queueing every week to get their cash from a post office we would be much more inclined to outcry and protest.
Dan S, London, UK

Alex Swanson: "The media ... is dominated by people who are generally left-wing". Presumably you ignore the dominating Sky, The Sun, The Times, Sunday Times, News of the World all run by a very right-wing Rupert Murdoch. Not counting The Mail, The Express, Evening Standard, The Telegraph all well to the right. And I don't see ITV or Channel 5 being accused of left-wing bias either. So, it's the right wing who choose to ignore the unemployment figures, much as did Maggie's government.
Chris Powell, London

It is no wonder unemployment is so high. When people like myself WHO IS LOOKING FOR WORK. Cannot find work in there area of living, and when they ask if there is a way that travel expenses could be paid for a couple weeks; which would then be paid back. All this to get a JOB. They are then told they don't qualify. The system doesn't help those who would like to help themselves. I can speak with authority on this matter. As I was also on Incapacity Benefit for some time.
John Morrison, East Dumbartonshire

My father was made unemployed 18 months ago and partially due to his age has not been able to find work precisely due to 'over-qualification', as Neal mentions. What is difficult to appreciate in this debate is the fluid nature of employment today compared to the past; a lot people change jobs on a frequent basis today, and some see unemployment as a stepping stone to another job (such as my father). This clouds the meaning of the statistics we see today, there is a proportion of 'unemployed' who are between jobs, and find it difficult to find new work but get there in the end. I agree that there is a small percentage of people who take unemployment benefits for granted with no intention of finding work but it is not an important part of the issue. The issue of unemployment is not what it seems- we can't seem to see that perceptions of unemployment and employment have changed since the 1970s to an extent that the statistics have different meanings in today's context.
Alex P, Oxford, UK

Unemployment is now a very regional issue unlike 1979 when it was a national issue. I am from the Isle of Wight where unemployment must be something like 30% after almost 10 years of relentless job hunting I have relocated to Leicestershire where there seems to be full employment and in Leicester there seem to be sit vac signs in every window. It not an issue because the Labour heartlands have full employment and the regions can go hang. look at Cornwall any of the coastal towns north or south. This government has done what it always does Cronyism pile the nations resources in to its core support areas. Come the glorious day citizen!
Steve, Leicester

It is not just the level of unemployment that is a problem, but the quality of work offered. Back when we had a manufacturing base there were all sorts of schemes for training in various skills. Now to young people save for the most privileged there's one option. The call centre or temping agency, who teach you nothing and leave you hating the rest of humanity. But there are skills shortages!! Why is there no consistent strategy for adult education so people can build a decent life for themselves? Its the thing the analysts miss how utterly crap it is at the bottom.
Andrew b,

It's all very well for David of Bristol to talk of taking any job just so long as it's a job. But to many employers your are only as good as your last position, and would not entertain for one moment applications from people who employed in certain types of work. These reaction comes mainly from the type that spend breakfast expounding over the table about "how they would do anything but be unemployed", once at work and faced by an application from a class of worker they consider beneath them and their opinions suddenly make a transformation.
Keith, Grimsby

The problem isn't the amount of unemployed people, it's the amount of unemployable people. It's socially acceptable to be claiming benefit, and not even bother trying to work. It's seen as an easy path. If people genuinely can't work, then fair enough. If they are fully able to work, but "can't find a job" then jobs should be assigned to them for minimum wage - plenty of brickwork needs cleaning, or pavements to sweep, hedges to pick rubbish out of...
Steve, Reading, UK

The casualisation of the professions has become a major problem. I am a historian/art historian, with a PhD, but have only had 4 years regular paid work in the heritage sector since getting my doctorate 13 years ago, and that has been fixed-term short contracts. I have applied for hundreds of jobs over the years, have done voluntary work, but am not even interviewed for secretarial/admin work as I am dismissed as "overqualified". I am angry, and feel cheated of the life for which I had worked.
Doc M, Glasgow, Scotland

One of the arguments used to ease worries about growing unemployment is that the number of people in work is also growing - indicating a growing economy. However, a significant percentage of the increase is made up of migrant workers. In most cases these aren't "new" jobs but existing jobs such as plumbing, building and catering (I've lost count of the number of restaurants I've been in that now have Eastern European waitresses). As pleasant as they are, our new EU neighbours are not filling some desperate skills shortage, which implies that employers are only choosing them in preference to UK staff on a cost basis - i.e. they will accept lower wages. Between the influx of workers prepared to take lower wages and the amount of work being outsourced overseas (the last five companies I have worked for have all shifted their IT departments to India) are we not missing the point? Yes, the overall number of people in work is growing, but the number of UK workers out of work is rising. Its not just jobs, but skills, experience and the will to work that are being lost here.
Anthony Dobbie, Leeds

With such low wages and high house prices there is no incentive to work. Even on an average 25,000 it is virtually impossible to afford property, particularly in the capital. When single-parenthood is one of the most profitable careers, earn over 20,000 for doing...nothing, then the benefit/employment market is skewed.
Will_G, Manchester, UK

It's not just an issue for older people, it is younger people to. As a recent graduate (my ceremony was in September of 2006), my contemporaries and I are apparently earning an average wage of 20,300. Of all those I know, and having been elected to Student Union that is a lot, I have the fourth best job. I earn 7 an hour as a reporting analyst for a major telecommunications firm, and my job has just been offshored to India. Offshored catastrophically I might add, though that is irrelevant. Before this job I earned minimum wage at a major department store chain. The only way my contemporaries and I could earn more is to go and work in finance (read: major credit card pusher phone-monkey), and that is something we went to University to avoid: unskilled, soul-crushing, target-driven work. So much for being top of my Journalism class!
Pete F, Leicester

I worked for Rover for 14 years. I was tossed out along with everyone else with the governments statutory payment. I have looked for work. I knock on doors, go to useless agencies, who once you have spent an hour or two filling in their forms and going through all the rigmarole never contact you again. I went to a business in Birmingham where my engineering experience would of been ideal. But it was full of Poles willing to work for a rate that I would not be able to keep a roof over my head or feed my family with. They are living 20people in a 3 bedroomed house and sending a majority of the money home. Its not going back into the uk economy. And as long as we get fiddled figures and spin from government things are only going to get worse. We are ALL doomed.
Paul Orchard, Birmingham

Hmm.. Divisive; left blames right, right in turn blames left. Unemployment is endemic in certain areas for many reasons; the unemployed are persistently oppressed and talked down to by paternalistic portions of society, from businesses to the Government itself, and are thus of exceptionally low morale. They also perceive their lifestyle as a great deal easier than working 50 hour weeks in three separate jobs on minimum wage. To lower unemployment, we would need to improve employment regulations for low paid workers, develop a tax system which does not penalise them (i.e. get rid of tax at the point of use, and other non means tested taxes for scaleable income tax, a much cheaper option to administer than the present system of rebates and tax credits), and implement something approaching a proper 'welfare to work' system, so that people can be moved from 'unemployed' to stable, rewarding work quickly.
Lewis, Leeds, U.K.

Gone are the days a job for life, but if today's graduates do not study the appropriate course and think a clown studies degree signifies that potato picking is beneath them of course you will have migrants coming in.
Paul Wroe, Bradford

Before 1979 there was a time of strikes and walkouts by un-curbed Union activists; the 3-day week, power-cuts, the Winter of Discontent and all that were about. The Tories' "Labour Isn't Working" slogan got them in power, not, in my opinion, on the numbers out of work but because of the state of The State and what people thought would happen if NK got in. Nowadays, if security doesn't improve, Unemployment continues going up, school teachers don't get respect, airlines continue to belch out CO2 and the NHS doesn't change its drug release policy then they will probably get back in again (if the polls are to believed). It's not rocket science. Cameron simply needs to make people feel he can run a country to walk it. Brown has proved he leaves it to others so why not the Tories?
David Dews, Worcester, England

Unemployment is not an issue because those who are too lazy to find work are also too lazy to vote!
Neil Lees, Montreal, Canada

Being unemployed no longer carries the social stigma it once did. For most people, a 'job for life' is no longer an option, and many of us will spend some of our working lives 'between jobs' - or rather, between short term contracts. However, it's important to treat such times as an opportunity rather than a holiday - do some study, learn a new skill, get up at the same time you would do if you were working and fill your day with useful activity. It's also a big mistake to think that, if you are out of work, there's a 'dream job' just around the corner - you will be much better off taking any job you are capable of doing - you will have more money than being on the dole, will gain some new experience, make new contacts and will seem much more employable when that 'dream job' finally turns up. Finally, if you are working, don't assume it will last forever - put some money away for that 'rainy day'.
John Ellerington, Southampton, UK

I'd have thought the answer to Brian Wheeler's conundrum was pretty clear. True, the proportion of people looking for work now is much the same as in 1979. But in 1979 the commonly accepted measure of unemployment was the claimant count, which in April of that year stood at 1.07 million, against 0.89 million today. And the workforce then was smaller, so the percentage unemployed appeared to be 4%, against 2.8% today. And those figures, in 1979, were being compared with equivalent figures of 1-2% in the 1950s and early 1960s. So unemployment appeared to have more than doubled. But perhaps the most obvious difference is that in May 1979 British voters elected a Conservative government whose economic policy proposals presupposed an increase in unemployment. Whereas today Labour is committed to trying to achieve full employment. So today we can hope that unemployment will not rise unduly from its present level, whereas such a bet in June 1979 would have been a very foolhardy one indeed. The public isn't stupid, and nor are (most) journalists. They know this, hence they are concerned, but not in panic mode.
Hugh Pemberton, Bristol University, UK

Unemployment was a "price worth paying" under Thatcherism. Unfortunately that price included the emergence of an underclass, dependant on benefits from one generation to another.
Jade, Sheffield

New Labour's New Deal progamme is an absolute disgrace. I have been unfortunate to have found myself wrung through it several times and found it to be a great hindrence to me. New Deal is not designed to help the young unemployed, it is designed to give training companies money for giving 'training' and fiddle figures. I have heard former first minister Jack McConnell bleat on about Scotland's skills shortage for longer than I care to remember and it begs my question of why? I should be an employer's ideal candidate at an age when I should be considered to be hitting my peak with a lot of skills, energy and dynamism and yet no matter what I do I cannot get in. I can't escape unemployment. WHY? I studied for a qualification under new deal yet I managed to find myself a job (on my own intiative I must add) a week or so before I was due to finish. My employer was not prepared to keep me on for any length of time and since I left my course, I did not gain the qualification despite doing all the work for it. So for achieving the one thing they want me to, my reward is to lose out twice. When I read people's comments suggesting that the unemployed are lazy or not trying hard enough, and when they point to the amount of vacancies there are currently. I suggest they go and look at how many full time vacanies there actually are and remind them with their hard line views that Fascism went out in the forties!
Andy, Scotland

UK unemployment level inches up
16 May 07 |  Business
Hardcore jobless face benefit cut
19 Dec 06 |  UK Politics


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