Tuesday’s policy announcements by the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition mark the entrance proper of both the question of youth and the question of labour into the election dog fight. In this tit-for-tat battle between the all-out reactionary welfare reforms of the Tories and the left-social democratic rhetoric of Labour, we may be fooled into believing that the object of contention is the future employability, prosperity and flourishing of young workers. A closer examination of both sets of benefit reforms, however, reveals only two strategies of ensuring the immediate term increased exploitation of young workers; strategies which differ only in their subtlety and intensity.
Here we will briefly outline a critique of the economic, social and political implications of both policies; implications which, we believe, have already been obfuscated by the rhetorical niceties of politicians and the press, and by inaccurate analyses of data provided by pilot schemes for the Tory policy.
The Conservative policy is best understood as an extension and consolidation of the principles of workfare. After six months of unsuccessful job-seeking, young people would be denied their standard JSA (dependent only on evidence that the jobseeker is, indeed, looking for work), and instead be offered a ‘youth allowance’ – paid at the same pitiful rate and dependent upon the claimant fulfilling 30 hours of community based work alongside 10 hours of job-seeking. Mr Cameron justifies this policy on the basis that it would provide badly needed work experience to young people and, ultimately, lead to a decline in youth unemployment. Speaking in Hove, East Sussex, Mr Cameron announced that:
“What these young people need is work experience and the order and discipline of turning up for work each day (…) That well-worn path – from the school gate, down to the jobcentre, and on to a life on benefits – has got to be rubbed away.”
It has apparently not occurred to the Prime Minister that there is a distinction between the individual difficulties a young person faces when applying for employment (in which a comparative lack of skills compared to other applicants may well prove an obstacle) and the overall underrepresentation of youth in the labour market. To claim that the latter is caused by a diminished skill set among young people would be to say that young people have gotten stupider, lazier and less competent in comparison to periods of low youth unemployment. Such a position is not only an outrageous insult, but is fundamentally disproved by even a cursory glance at school and college qualification rates over the last thirty years.
Contrary to this ridiculous position, we hold that the current rate of youth unemployment has nothing to do with an unprecedented slump in the qualities of young people, and everything to do with a structural crisis of capitalism which forces both private and public sector employers to seek efficiencies by avoiding recruitment, merging entry level jobs and, as far as possible, employing those who need less training and development opportunities than the majority of young people. This has created an all-out assault on the pay and conditions of those young people in work who, forced to compete for jobs and with no competition amongst potential employers, are compelled to pick up the scraps of the labour market in the form of precarious and low paid work – work which often returns them to the jobcentre with alarming speed.
The very best which we could say about any policy which refuses to address the conditions of the crisis, the want of jobs themselves and the appalling treatment of young workers, is that it simply will not work. The Tory policy, however, does not even merit this compliment; as opposed to being merely ineffective, the ‘youth allowance’ scheme threatens to take a bad situation for young workers and extend it into a recurring cycle of unemployment, poverty and exploitation
The crux of this policy’s failure lies both in the type of work which claimants will be forced into and the effect which a mass pool of unpaid labour will have on job creation. In the first instance, Mr Cameron proposes that claimants can ‘play their part’ by ‘making meals for older people, cleaning up litter and graffiti, or working for local charities’. Perhaps these workshy urchins will be expected to spend a weekend mucking out Mr Cameron’s stables!?
In effect, forced labour taken from the unemployed would be indistinguishable from the forced labour already extracted from those members of the working class unfortunate enough to be held within our prison system. The next step for Cameron is surely the establishment of an English equivalent of the Deutsche Arbeiterfront, were the current labour lieutenants of the bourgeoisie not already ably fulfilling this task!
The Tory scheme promises employers a continual stream of free labour to undertake jobs which would otherwise be waged and available to young people. What employer in their right mind would pay for a job to be done when they can get it done for free indefinitely?
In light of this, we assert that the entire debate about the efficacy of pilot schemes for this policy is meaningless. If youth unemployment can be demonstrated to have gone down in areas where this policy has been implemented, this is entirely dependent on the fact that the policy was implemented in isolation. It may be that cleaning graffiti for free in one borough may make you an attractive applicant for a cleaning job in an adjacent council, but if all areas and all comparative employers are guaranteed free labour then such jobs will begin disappear. Any analysis which ignores this fact is doomed to be merely an exercise in rhetoric, rather than a concrete appraisal of young people’s future.
Against the Tories’ shambolic, back of a fag packet proposal, Labour have sensibly seized the opportunity to indulge in some populist ‘left’ posturing. Mr Miliband has promised a guaranteed six-month employment contract to every young person out of work, and guaranteed apprenticeships to all school leavers with relevant grades. With a political foresight with which he can rarely be credited, ‘Red Ed’ even had the sense to combine social-democratic nostalgia with a pretence of class war leadership – proclaiming that this miraculous policy would be funded by a tax on bankers’ bonuses and, thus, striking a blow at the bogeymen of the reformist anti-austerity movement.
While openly left in rhetoric, the Labour proposal constitutes a brutal attack on the employment rights of young workers. While it may be a distinction more theoretical than real in the present age, the initial justification of capitalism’s existence is that – in opposition to feudalism – the labourer’s relation to his employer is that of a free person entering into a contract. In this free contract, the worker has the right to demand certain conditions of his employer and, if these are not forthcoming, may freely refuse to enter into a given employment; losing only the wages that this employ would have secured him in future. Even this basic right of a worker is violated by Labour’s proposal. In an attempt to look ‘tough’ on those claiming benefits, Mr Miliband has followed the Tory example and promised to refuse benefits to any young people who turn down the job offered them. This position denies young workers the same basic rights held by everyone else and cannot conceivably be justified, even within the rules of the capitalist labour market.
We believe that the solution to youth unemployment is not to be found in the harassment of working class youth, but in the creation of a society which can offer young people meaningful work. We have no illusions that a one-off tax on one part of the capitalist class can pay for a wonder policy to solve the various difficulties facing young workers; capital is global and able to avoid national taxation with relative ease. We believe that only through creating a society where the working class controls what it produces and how it is distributed can we ensure long term, fulfilling and meaningful employment for all. We refuse to accept that young workers are to blame for youth unemployment, and we refuse to accept that we must beg employers for the ‘charity’ of hiring us. The only future which will work for us is socialism, and socialism is the only future we fight for.