Published online by Cambridge University Press: 03 February 2022
In 1979, the Conservative election poster, ‘Labour isn't working’, showed a long queue of people winding to the ‘unemployment office’. The powerful image is still remembered and copied: ‘austerity isn't working’ was part of UK Uncut's campaigning before the 2012 Budget. Little more than three years after the Conservative victory in 1979, unemployment had reached not only 2 million, but 3 million – over 13% by the measure then used. I wrote What unemployment means (Sinfield, 1981) to challenge two dominant views: that we should learn to accept that much lower unemployment was a thing of the past, almost an accident of the 1950s and 1960s; and that unemployment was ‘a price worth paying’ with little care for those who had to pay that price. A generation on, with unemployment high again, the editors of Social policy review asked me to reflect on the significance of unemployment today and how it has changed from the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s.
In this chapter, current trends in unemployment are compared with the past before discussing some of the main similarities and changes in its impact. Emphasis is given to the continuing dismantling of social security and its effect on the link between unemployment and poverty, already long-established in the UK. The implications of the policy shift from a focus on unemployment to worklessness are discussed, with particular attention to the role played by leading politicians in shaping public perception of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ to reinforce support for tougher and divisive policies.
By the winter of 2012–13, unemployment has been high for over three years – 7.8% by the Labour Force Survey measure that replaced the administrative count in 1997. Two and a half million people are out of work, 1 million part of the legacy of the credit crunch. The trends over time need to be spelt out to show the massive scale and harsh impact of the previous two recessions, after a long period of much lower post-war unemployment. The sudden peak of over one million on the administrative count in the early 1970s provoked the Heath government's ‘U-turn’ that quickly brought the numbers back below half a million.
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