No thought for human indignity: The unemployed are more than statistics; their pain can be heard. Frank Field looks at a tragedy ignored by the intellectual agenda

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The elimination of full employment as the major objective of economic policy has been the most silent and deadliest of Margaret Thatcher's revolutions. It has done more than any other act by Government to pauperise many of our fellow citizens and rob them of a sense of dignity and worth.

Why has there been such an intellectual and political collapse on this front? Why did economists in the Thirties, unlike today, question their own theories on how to achieve full employment? Restoring full employment is no easy goal - indeed, many people now believe it to be impossible.

In the immediate post-war years, Western Europe experienced a period of full employment for the first time. This golden period, for that is how it now appears, lasted well into the Sixties. Everything then changed swiftly. At each stage unemployment was left at a higher level than at the same point in the previous economic cycle. By January 1967 an unemployment level, which had fluctuated at around 300,000, had doubled. The upward movement had begun, to more than 1 million early in the Heath government, to 1.5 million by mid-1976, and 3 million in 1982. This is also today's figure, and it is set to rise higher.

But the numbers are hard to visualise. They numb the mind to the human cost. Individuals respond in different ways to redundancy or, as is so often the case, to never having had a job since leaving school.

Some present a brave face and that may be how they feel. However, I represent a seat which is cursed with a huge tally of people who have been conscripted into Britain's unemployment army, and that has not been my experience. Very few people who are about to become unemployed have trusted themselves (or perhaps me) to express their true feelings about it. But once they have scrambled out of the quagmire, the impressions come more easily: despising oneself for not being useful enough to find a job, the simple despair of writing to literally hundreds of employers, never to receive a reply, are some common reactions. That constant struggle to get up in the morning, and finally not managing it, is another common experience. To shave or not to shave becomes one of the big questions of the day.

One of my constituents, Dave Christian, became unemployed in 1979 and recently descibed how it felt for him. He accepted the line that training and qualifications would lead to a job. Ten years later, this proved to be true when he was appointed to a post in the probation service. Mr Christian takes up the story:

'My gradual realisation of how difficult it was to find a job on Merseyside was a frightening experience. The items we had gathered together for a home of our own were slowly sold off. My name was on the waiting list at every employer known to me in the area. I spent endless hours knocking on doors, writing letters and making telephone calls, but to no avail.

'Being without money, except to meet the most basic needs, means you stop participating in society and become merely an observer of others. This, more than the boredom, the lack of money or the daily struggle to find a reason to get out of bed, shave or maintain an appearance, was what I found hardest to bear.

'Long-term unemployment took its toll in a number of ways. First, and most obvious, is the attempt to maintain a decent life on a very low income. Once all the saleable items that you own are gone, you are at the mercy of the state benefit system. It would be wrong to say that you cannot survive on benefits, but it would be right to say that that is about all you can do. It is possible to eat basically, and occasionally to buy cheap clothing and to pay essential bills. However, unless you are in a monastery or prison, it is difficult to remain sane doing no more with your life than this.

'It is difficult to maintain friendships when your finances allow you to do nothing more active than watch television. Very soon you are spending most of your time sitting in the living-room or lying in bed. I've seen the tension of constantly living on top of each other and the lack of diversion pull many relationships apart. I could sometimes go for days without leaving the house, only going out eventually to visit the job centre or sign on. There is, of course, a limit to how long you can live like this at one stretch.

'After Christmas 1979 it was 10 years until my wife or I bought each other a present - for Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries or any other time. The trouble is that the next day you regret spending the money; it has to be found from somewhere, and so you get behind with rent, in arrears with gas, electricity, poll tax, etc and eventually fall victim to the high-interest loan merchants. One of the harshest aspects of this is that basic living costs are higher when you are unemployed. The house requires heating all through the day, far more electricity is used through watching television and drinking tea all day, and food purchased in small quantities costs far more.

'It is now nearly four years since I started work, but still unemployment haunts me. It took at least three years to free ourselves from debt. Now, in order to progress, I have to obtain a place on a course, leave my employment and reapply two years later at a higher grade. Few people understand the real fear that I feel when I even think of taking this line of action, and it is highly unlikely I will do so. Within the probation service there is the view that it is unknown for somebody not to be offered a job after completing this course. The course is two years and I am aware that the Government is capable of doing many things in that period. I would not trust to fate in that way.'

Even more immediate feelings come from wives or parents. At my surgery it is not uncommon for a woman to sit nervously pummelling the side of the small wooden table which stands between me and my constituents. Invariably she will say that she knows there are no jobs, but couldn't I persuade an employer to give her husband just an interview? It would make such a difference to his morale. It would signal hope. He's decent. He's a good man. You see he's . . . But the sentence rarely gets finished. Her eyes are already filled with tears.

How these husbands and wives must long, if not for a job, at least for a time when the ache at the pit of the stomach is no longer noticeable. Who can blame people in this position for wanting to appear as though the curse that has been thrown on them does not matter?

Parents also come about their children, many of whom have no chance whatsoever of finding a job, no matter how many training courses they attend. It is worse for those who are unemployed themselves. Unemployment divides families. The benefits are so low, and to ask their children, who often have had few possessions, to pay their share of the rent is, in many instances, the last straw.

What is one supposed to say to parents who have done everything in their power to make a success of their children, who have taught them to live by the rules, who have practised at being a loving family, and yet have to ask the children to leave so that they, the parents, will have their meagre social security money increased? And what can be said to those parents who ask about the chances of finding a job in a town where there are too few such opportunities? There is no comfort in the fact that there are possibly a million other parents posing exactly the same question.

Why isn't unemployment the burning political issue, commanding a major part of the Government's time, and that of Parliament? What are the trade unions and employers up to? Why do we all pretend our business is more important than attending to this issue? Why has the political debate turned away from those without work?

Part of the answer must lie with those politicians who, from the mid-Sixties, allowed the position to deteriorate and unemployment levels to rise. Once that started to happen, there was rarely a point at which the position had so significantly changed that a new approach was demanded. The debate was successfully switched from a political programme which had important objectives, such as the numbers of people who should be in employment, to a programme which elevates inanimate issues such as price stability.

It cannot be said that this success in dethroning the full employment objective has been won in the face of great political opposition. That no alternative policies have been developed says everything about Labour's stance. The failure to develop a coherent strategy marks the first intellectual failure in this whole wretched saga.

One other intellectual failure must also be confronted. Unemployment rarely appears on the agenda of economists, but what more important topic could there be? As in the Thirties, it seems that economists are again hell- bent on ignoring today's major economic problems, refusing even to include employment in many of their forecasts.

It is time to call a halt to this retreat. As a first move, Labour MPs need to express more effectively the despair and hopelessness of so many of their constituents. This righteous anger needs to be followed by the party committing itself to working out what is now necessary to achieve full employment again.

On an institutional level, we need to consider what part the EC and the Government can and should play, what we should expect from employers and trade unions, what the role of our education system should be, and what responsibilities each and every one of us, including the unemployed, will bear. - The author is MP for Birkenhead. This is an edited excerpt from the fourth of this year's Durham Lectures, to be delivered tomorrow at 5.15 in the Exhibition Hall, Palace Green, Durham.

(Photograph omitted)