Stop stigmatising the unemployed: the problem is the lack of decent jobs

Young workers don't need education in "turning up in time" - they need job opportunities that pay at least a living wage.

Both a Tory minister and a Labour shadow have this week made the latest in a long line of deeply worrying, stigmatising comments about the unemployed that show a profound failure to understand the nature of our job market, what young people in particular have to offer, and what employers are failing to offer workers.

Today, Esther McVey, employment minister, told the Daily Mail that young people should "take a job in Costa [coffee shops]" where they could learn to "turn up on time", and from there build up their career. She complained that they were less qualified than immigrant workers. McVey’s comments show a profound lack of knowledge of both our young jobseekers and of the current labour market. Huge numbers of highly qualified young people are desperately seeking jobs, but if they take jobs well below their training and skills, this can blight their future career chances. A year in Costa is unlikely to prepare you for a graduate-level job – it will more likely sentence you to a life of low pay, insecurity and non-development of your career.

Yet young people are applying for these jobs anyway, despite what McVey says. The most famous example is the new Costa in Nottingham, that saw 1,700 people applying for eight jobs. In a case like that, getting or not getting a job can be little more than a lottery, with odds just about as bad as the national one. Young workers don't need education in "turning up in time" - they need job opportunities that pay at least a living wage, are not zero-hours contracts, and that offer a chance of building a career - in short, jobs that you can build a life on.

But there’s little sign that the Labour Party grasps these facts either. Earlier this week, Rachel Reeves, yes, she of the "we’ll be tougher on benefits than the Tories" infamy, came out to say that Labour would force unemployed people to take tests in English and computer skills, and force them on to courses if they failed, at the pain of losing their benefits.

Providing training for people who need it is, of course, a good general principle, but to do so under these circumstances is a recipe for inducing humiliation and penury. Imagine the 50-something former manual worker, who perhaps missed out on reading and writing at school due to undiagnosed dyslexia. Will the kind of course likely to be offered – based on Labour’s track record, by some delightful company like Atos or G4S – provide adequate for his or her needs, or will it leave them so humiliated that they give up and lose their benefits? And will this level of assistance really help them get a new job?

And it implies that Labour believes, as the Tories clearly do, that unemployment is an individual failing, not a reflection of the state and nature of the economy. The fact that we now have a level of long-term youth unemployment matching that of John Major’s time doesn’t reflect on our young people – it reflects on the failure of our job market to provide appropriate employment.

While young people with parents who can afford to support them do years of unpaid internships in search of the elusive professional jobs, those without that backing are forced to take what they can get – damned to professing passionate devotion to serving coffee when they’re qualified to be filling professional roles. And as workers with PhDs, master’s degrees and bachelor's degrees fill coffee-serving jobs, those with A-levels struggle, and those without are pushed into hopelessness. And what’s to become of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, who find themselves pushed out of jobs and in desperate need of new ones?

We need to transform our economy so it works for us, rather than us slaving away for the untaxed profits of giant multinationals, and to pay for the recklessness of the fraud-ridden, and still unreformed, financial sector. To create the varied, skilled range of jobs we need, the government should follow the re-shoring trend and adopt policies to bring manufacturing and food production back to Britain. It needs to be forcing multinational companies to pay taxes, and provide decent pay and conditions, which will widen the opportunities for small business and cooperatives to thrive, and create strong local economies that see money circulating within towns and cities, rather than swooshing out of them to London or the most convenient tax haven.

And in the meantime, we should stop blaming the unemployed for the fact that our society has failed to provide them with decent paying, reasonably secure jobs that they can build a life on.

A man stands outside the Jobcentre Plus on January 18, 2012 in Trowbridge, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.