Marcus Rashford’s campaign shows the government won’t get away with blaming the poor for unemployment

Mass layoffs are inevitable, but the Tory tactic of blaming the nation’s economic ills on those suffering will no longer work

James Moore
Saturday 17 October 2020 13:37 BST
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Boris Johnson says 'tough times' lie ahead for UK job market

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Norman, now Lord, Tebbit’s speech to the 1981 Tory conference has become an unpleasant earworm that greets me every time I see a fresh set of data relating to jobs and Britain’s inexorable plunge into a new era of mass-unemployment.

“I grew up in the Thirties with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work and he kept on looking till he found it,” the cadaverous new employment secretary told the Tory throngs in Blackpool, to rapturous applause.

I was at school at the time, but the reports on the speech pierced the fog of youth. It was hard not to be shocked by the callousness on display at a time the jobless total was at 10 per cent and being added to with every passing week.

The Tory Rottweiler later sought to clarify what he’d said in a TV interview by insisting he meant that “people must seek work and I believe they are, the great mass of them, and they’ll soon find it”.

But it was the soundbite that was remembered, as he surely must have known it would be. It was an exemplar of what Theresa May was talking about when she coined the phrase “the nasty party”.  

Would any Tory minister dare say something like that today? I wonder.

Tebbit was engaged in a classic example of blaming the poor and the jobless for their plight, with the implication that those involved in demonstrations against mass-unemployment were lazy and that if they’d all have followed his father’s example they’d have found work.

The problem was that the de-industrialisation the government was then presiding over meant that in places like Corby, the Midlands town whose steel works had just closed, it wouldn’t have mattered how much bike riding people did. There was simply no work to be found.

Britain faces a similar problem today, with mass layoffs occurring left, right, and centre as industries that were under strain before the pandemic start to buckle under its heel. With some, such as retail, the pain is fairly widely dispersed.

But there may yet be other Corbys on the way. There still exist a few of today’s equivalents of the company town, with big employers on which whole communities depend. The pandemic is poised to crash into Boris Johnson’s beloved no-deal Brexit, which will impose crippling new tariffs and supply chain problems on Britain’s automotive industry, leaving its UK manufacturing centres in deep trouble. And it’s not just cars that could be affected. The makers are having their arms broken for them.

If their people end up getting laid off they could, today, literally be on their bikes finding work. But it’s work that pays a pittance. Gig economy jobs with the likes of Deliveroo can sometimes leave riders on less than the minimum wage (court battles over that are ongoing). They also get no sick pay and no holiday pay. Deliveroo is one of those companies that views the people on whom its business depends as self-employed.

It may still be an option for some. Trouble is, how many riders does Deliveroo need? How many Uber drivers will be required to pick up a diminished number of fares? We might be about to find out.

There is still a constituency for speeches like the one Tebbit gave. There are people who believe their disadvantaged fellow Britons are poor and unemployed because they’re lazy. I vividly remember being driven to hospital by an otherwise affable driver who felt that way, and being driven back by a more confrontational one who was similarly inclined.

But I don’t think that the majority of today’s Britain is inclined to so easily indulge the sort of victim-blaming that was common among the Tories of the early 1980s. Part of the reason is because the backdrop is so very different. There has been no Labour “winter of discontent” which preceded the election of Margaret Thatcher, who appointed Tebbit as employment secretary. Rubbish hasn’t been piling up in the street and strikes remain a rarity.

The unions can’t conveniently be shoehorned into the role of bogeyman today as they were then. On the contrary. A lot of people are starting to see their value.

The Tories have also now been in power for more than a decade. And Brexit is on them too.

The reaction to footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to end the plight of children going hungry during school holidays, and food poverty in general, should be a cautionary tale for them. Ministers are going to have to give in to his demands sooner or later because public opinion is on his side.

They’ll still cast around for someone to blame for the country’s economic ills, because that’s what they do. But if they decide to hector the victims of it they may find it’s they who are in need of two-wheeled conveyances. That would serve as some small consolation as we contemplate the mess they’ve got us into. 

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