It is one of the boldest, most powerful election posters you’re likely to see. It’s from the 1955 election has only five words: “It’s FULL employment – vote Conservative“. The party was celebrating the fact that unemployment had reached a record low after four years of Conservative government, and the British people saluted the achievement when it returned the party to power with a massively increased majority. On Monday, the chancellor reclaimed that tradition for the Conservatives, and he should be congratulated for it. He also made clear that “mass unemployment is never a price worth paying”, rightly distancing himself from a line that is still remembered by the party’s opponents and has been repeated to me by many voters in the north-east.
Jobs matter, and unemployment can have profoundly negative consequences – as I know from growing up in a north-eastern town that had one of the highest rates of unemployment in western Europe when I was a child. Being out of work damages the morale of an individual, often taking away the pride, independence and security that comes from earning a wage in regular employment. It also has a damaging effect on family life, making it more difficult to support a family, and the stress that often accompanies unemployment all too often leads to family and relationship breakdown. Mass unemployment can also have a severely negative impact on a community. The devastating social consequences of unemployment that the euro has visited on Greece, Spain and Portugal are there for all to see.
That is why it’s so important that the chancellor has said he is fighting for full employment and is making job creation a real priority. There is little doubt that after inheriting a legacy of mass unemployment, the government has made important steps to tackle the misery of unemployment and focus on creating jobs. Surely even the most partisan figures on the left should be celebrating the good news on jobs that has been a feature of the past year – 1.3m new jobs have been created in this parliament and employment has increased in all nations and regions of the UK, with 75% of private sector job growth happening outside of London. For the first time in 35 years the UK has a higher employment rate than the US.
There is, of course, more that needs to be done. Too many people are still out of work, too many still lack the skills needed to progress in careers, and the north-south divide remains, although the growth in private sector jobs in the north is welcome.
Government can’t create full employment, but it can create the conditions in which full employment can exist. We need a competitive environment for job creation with low levels of corporation tax, and to make sure national insurance contributions don’t disincentivise employers from taking on workers, particularly younger ones. A modern industrial strategy to boost manufacturing is important, and our towns and cities need first-rate transport links, rapid digital infrastructure and inspiring civic leadership.
The government should also help people into work. The above-inflation increase in the minimum wage is vital because it helps those who have been struggling hard since the recession and helps ensure that work pays. And those who have been out of work for a period of time should get the support they need to find work, which is why initiatives like Help To Work for the long-term unemployed are crucial. Equally, education reform needs to continue apace to make sure young people emerge from our schools, colleges and universities with the skills that they and the economy need.
Labour’s approach to this drive to tackle unemployment continues to mystify. Keir Hardie was called the “member for the unemployed“, and in the 1930s and 1980s Labour, with justification, focused its attack on mass unemployment. Now it seems devoid of answers and seems to prefer not to talk about unemployment. Past Labour governments, elected with good intentions, still all left office with higher unemployment than they inherited.
Whereas in the 1980s and 1990s, Labour politicians saw low unemployment as a measure of economic success, they are now curiously silent on that metric. That is partially because unemployment is falling rapidly when Labour predicted it would rise by more than a million. Gordon Brown’s administration was marked by soaring unemployment, and they’ve nothing new to say about creating jobs and tackling unemployment, beyond repeating the ideas they tried when last in office. Labour has sacrificed the mantle of the party of full employment to the Conservatives.
An aspiration of full employment and having the highest employment rate in the G7 is bold, ambitious and the right thing to do. A focus on job creation and getting people into work is a focus on making sure everybody is able to make the most of their potential. Creating millions more private sector jobs means giving hope to people whom some on the left might have written off to a life on welfare, and making sure prosperity is spread outside of the south-east and reaches the low paid. Building an economy around job creation is a noble goal and full employment is a cause worth fighting for.
This article was first published in The Guardian on 1st April 2014.