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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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.