Is IDS nervous about getting unemployed Britain back to work?

The government would prefer to blame unemployment on immigration than on their economic policies.

It is hard to see what Iain Duncan Smith will gain from his call today for employers to hire indigenous British workers over migrants. The short-term politics of it are fairly straightforward: the government would rather people blamed unemployment on immigration, which for the time being can still be portrayed as a Labour legacy, than on their own economic policies.

But commercial enterprises aren't generally minded to set their recruitment drives to spare ministers' blushes. It is their job, so they say, to hire the best people and it is government's task to run an education and training system that turns out credible candidates.

David Frost of the British Cambers of Commerce put it pretty bluntly on the Today programme this morning:

[Employers] expect young people to come forward to them who are able to read, write, communicate and have a strong work ethic, and too often that's not the case ... And there's a stream of highly able eastern European migrants who are able to take those jobs, and that's why they're taking them on.

IDS's point is essentially that the government -- through the Work Programme, which got up and running this month -- will change all of that, and businesses should take note. No doubt they will, if the Work Programme does what it is supposed to. The idea is that private sector firms will prepare unemployed people for work and get money from the DWP budget if they manage it. It is arguably the most ambitious "payment by results" system for welfare-to-work policies anywhere in the world.

But the point that IDS seems to be ignoring is that the system is explicitly designed to function as a market. Government shouldn't have to intervene to direct employers' hiring policy. The Work Programme providers only get paid if they place people in work. So if the policy is a success, there will be no need for businesses to start actively favouring indigenous Brits -- they'll have them on the books already. And if they don't, then something will have gone badly wrong with the Work Programme model. The rate at which under-educated and under-skilled British workers get back into the labour market is clearly a test of IDS's policy. He can't start blaming businesses in advance in case it doesn't work.

Of course, success in that respect depends most of all on the rate of job creation in the economy as a whole. The Office for Budget Responsibility (using models from the Treasury) forecasts the appearance of 1.3m new jobs by 2015, which are presumed to come from increased private sector investment. That assumption follows from the broader expectation that GDP growth will bounce back to just under 3 per cent over the same period.

Most economists I speak to think those forecasts are pretty optimistic. And some of the unsuccessful bidders for Work Programme contracts (and some successful ones) have told me they think the whole thing will falter because there simply won't be enough jobs out there -- and they suggest a number of providers have been naïve or lazy in their estimates of how much it actually costs to rehabilitate someone after a long period of unemployment. So the ingenious market mechanism could malfunction. Result: the DWP in dispute with private sector contractors who aren't delivering the goods, and stubborn joblessness.

It looks as if IDS is getting nervous about his ability to get unemployed Britain back to work. If he fails, it won't be the fault of immigrants or business.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

If only I could wangle a job in the John Lewis menswear department I’d get to say, “Suits you, sir”

I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

So now that I have made the news public that I am even deeper in the soup than I was when I started this column, various people – in fact, a far greater number than I had dared hope would – have expressed their support. Most notable, as far as I can tell, was Philip Pullman’s. That was decent of him. But the good wishes of people less in the public eye are just as warming to the heart.

Meanwhile, the question is still nagging away at me: what are you going to do now? This was the question my mother’s sisters would always ask her when a show she was in closed, and my gig might have been running for almost as long as The Mousetrap but hitherto the parallels with entertainment had eluded me.

“That’s show business,” she said to me, and for some reason that, too, is a useful comment. (I once saw a picture of a fairly well-known writer for page and screen dressed up, for a fancy-dress party, as a hot dog. The caption ran: “What? And give up show business?”)

Anyway, the funds dwindle, although I am busy enough to find that time does not weigh too heavily on my hands. The problem is that this work has either already been paid for or else is some way off being paid for, if ever, and there is little fat in the bank account. So I am intrigued when word reaches me, via the Estranged Wife, that another family member, who perhaps would prefer not to be identified, suggests that I retrain as a member of the shopfloor staff in the menswear department of John Lewis.

At first I thought something had gone wrong with my hearing. But the E W continued. The person who had made the suggestion had gone on to say that I was fairly dapper, could talk posh, and had the bearing, when it suited me, of a gentleman.

I have now thought rather a lot about this idea and I must admit that it has enormous appeal. I can just see myself. “Not the checked jacket, sir. It does not become sir. May I suggest the heather-mixture with the faint red stripe?”

In the hallowed portals of Jean Louis (to be said in a French accent), as I have learned to call it, my silver locks would add an air of gravitas, instead of being a sign of superannuation, and an invitation to scorn. I would also get an enormous amount of amusement from saying “Walk this way” and “Suits you, sir”.

Then there are the considerable benefits of working for the John Lewis Partnership itself. There is the famed annual bonus; a pension; a discount after three months’ employment; paid holiday leave; et cetera, et cetera, not to mention the camaraderie of my fellow workers. I have worked too long alone, and spend too much time writing in bed, nude, surrounded by empty packets of Frazzles and Dinky Deckers. (For those who are unfamiliar with the latter, a Dinky Decker is a miniature version of a Double Decker, which comes in a bag, cunningly placed by the tills of Sainsbury’s Locals, which is usually priced at a very competitive £1.)

I do some research. I learn from an independent website that a retail sales assistant can expect to make £7.91 an hour on average. This is somewhat less than what is considered the living wage in London, but maybe this is accounted for in the John Lewis flagship store in Oxford Street. It is, though, a full 6p an hour more than the living wage in the rest of the land. Let the good times roll!

At which point a sudden panic assails me: what if employment at that store is only granted to those of long and proven service? God, they might send me out to Brent Cross or somewhere. I don’t think I could stand that. I remember when Brent Cross Shopping Centre opened and thought to myself, even as a child, that this was my idea of hell. (It still is, though my concept of hell has broadened to include Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush.)

But, alas, I fear this tempting change of career is not to be. For one thing, I am probably too old to train now. By the time I will have been taught to everyone’s satisfaction how to operate a till or measure an inside leg, I will be only a few months, if that, from retirement age, and I doubt that even so liberal an employer as John Lewis would be willing to invest in someone so close to the finish line.

Also, I have a nasty feeling that it’s not all heather-mixture suits with (or without) the faint red stripe these days. The public demands other, less tasteful apparel.

So I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496