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.

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.