Leading Article: Labour's long road to work

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The Independent Online
A FAVOURITE topic at British schools 30 years ago was a phenomenon expected to arrive at some point later in the century called the Problem of Leisure. Pupils would be invited to speculate on a world so dominated by machines that work, as it was then understood (the morning ping of the clocking-in machine, the evening surge through the factory gate), would diminish close to the point of extinction. So how would we fill our lives? The question then had no foreboding, partly because the prospect seemed so unreal. Men in overalls still cycled in swarms past the school gates. Distant hooters sounded at the lunch break. The careers master had an interesting array of pamphlets. The question seemed as abstract as algebra, the answers in retrospect as touching as a baby's smile. We would . . . er . . . listen to great music, read great books, learn carpentry. The money to pay for this fulfilment would be equably distributed from the profits made by the machinery. Nobody could then envisage hypodermic needles littering the public park, a heroin problem in Form IV, the nightly vomit on the high street. Nobody then thought that the source of funds for this fulfilment, or amnesia, would be burglary, mugging, shoplifting and various layers of dishonesty.

The question has changed. It presses on almost every government, and it will press increasingly on the Labour Party: the Problem of Unemployment. Rising joblessness over the past 15 years has helped produce the most dramatic widening in the gap between Britain's rich and poor in modern times. Some of us work harder and are better off than ever before, helped on our way by the income tax cuts of the late 1980s which fulfilled the biblical injunction that to them that hath shall be given. Some of us still work but, in absolute terms, are no better off than we were 25 years ago and are worse off than we were in 1979. Increasing numbers of us do not work at all. The idyll of leisure, the Utopia conjured up in the 1960s, has disappeared. Work means money and, in a consuming society, money is more necessary than ever before. Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, talks about the need for 'full and fulfilling employment'. John Prescott wants a return to the idea of 'full employment' outlined by Ernest Bevin 50 years ago. Nobody seems to know, perhaps not even Brown and Prescott, quite how full they want their version of full employment to be, but both clearly envisage a noticeable reduction in Britain's current 10 per cent unemployment rate.

It will not be easy. Powerful forces, not confined to Britain, are keeping unemployment high and no industrialised country has yet found a solution. Demand for unskilled male workers has collapsed in Europe and the United States over the past couple of decades in the face of international competition. There are plenty of countries in the Far East where people are prepared to work for sums well below those which Western societies would be prepared to tolerate. This process can only accelerate as more emerging nations make themselves attractive as locations for footloose global corporations. At the same time the relentless advance of technology means that manufacturers in the West increasingly need highly skilled and well-educated white-collar employees rather than blue-collar brawn. The world of machines foreseen 30 years ago is indeed producing profits, but they are enjoyed only by an increasingly elite group. Like the rise in unemployment, this helps to fuel inequality.

The disappearance of jobs for unskilled males has been matched by a rise in female employment that Bevin could never have foreseen. This shift has been so dramatic that in the next year or two the number of women with jobs in Britain will overtake the number of men with jobs, for the first time in peacetime. This narrowing in the gap between the sexes is welcome in itself, but carries risks. In the US unskilled men have increasingly withdrawn from active participation in the labour market rather than compete with women for the newly created jobs, which are often part-time, low-paid and in the service sector. Many have turned to the black economy or worse, encouraged, no doubt, by evidence that poorly educated American men can triple their take-home pay through crime.

Brown and Prescott rightly fear Britain travelling down this road. Improving training and education may be the best long- term solution, but it is a painfully slow and expensive route. Labour's next leader will have to crave public patience, as well as large contributions from the public purse.