Playing hard to get with Jobcentre Plus

So, to sum up the past few weeks of pontificating by Gordon and George: "GET A JOB!" Yes, there were "policies" and "vision", but there was also
a pretty strong get-to-work-you-lazy-ass-Brits message. I suppose it's fair enough, given that around 2.5 million of us are unemployed and the economy's still tanking. But how are they (they, for future reference, means the government; people who think they're in government even though there hasn't been an election yet; quango types; generic hangers-on) actually helping us get jobs?

Well, trumpets the Jobcentre Plus website, come to us "for a new beginning with real opportunities". Real ones? Really? Delve further into the intricate world of Jobcentre Plus and you realise that new beginnings are quite complicated. (What's the Plus about, by the way? Is it like Jobcentre, with extras? So you can go in, job-hunt, and do your washing at the same time? Or perhaps it's just the quest for positivity in a gloomy setting. Whack a cheerful "plus" on the end and we might all forget that job-hunting is a fundamentally soul-sapping endeavour.)

Jobcentre Plus does not want to give the impression of simplicity. First up, there are three programmes for people in various different situations: Pathways to Work, WorkPath and progress2work. Then within WorkPath there are three more: Access to Work, Work Preparation and Workstep. You can almost hear the biscuit-fuelled Whitehall meeting: "Hang on, people, we haven't got nearly enough names for our programmes. Can anyone think of some different ways of saying exactly the same thing, all with the word 'work' in the title? And don't be afraid to combine two words in one meaningless word. Also, use text-speak. I hear it attracts young people." And so Workstep and progress2work are born. I think the latter riles me most. Imagine the eureka moment when they made it lower case ("So urban!").

But they're trying their best. Elsewhere on Jobcentre Plus there's a wholesome, if formidably patronising, list of interview tips. After some straightforward "Dos" ("Smile!", "Look interested") they move on to the "Don'ts": "Swear (even mildly)", "Draw attention to your weaknesses", "Lie or be too enthusiastic". Can't I swear even a little bit? And as for the drawing attention to weaknesses - I love the idea of someone going into an interview and compulsively revealing everything awful about themselves. ("I mean, sometimes I just can't help being abusive to strangers on the bus.")

The prize, however, goes to the final tip: don't be too enthusiastic. It's like they're telling us the rules of dating. "For God's sake don't text him back. Play it cool, pretend you don't give a damn." Oh, thank you, Jobcentre Plus. I knew I was going wrong somewhere. It must have been that whole pretending-I-wanted-the-job ruse. Lunacy! Next time, I'm the ice queen.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England