The Blog

The Tory Myth of 'Full Employment' and the Reality: Austerity, 'Self-Employment', Chronic Underemployment and Workfare


The unexpected Tory election victory last month no one seriously expected - least of all the Tory party - broke with the horror of a nightmare become reality. It remains to be seen whether or not David Cameron's wafer thin majority and the coming battles he faces will survive the full 5 year term, but the past 5 years of austerity and the decimation of former coalition partner the Liberal Democrats do indeed mean that the (post)-ideological barrage of Cameron, Osborne, and co. can be expected to get fully into its stride.

The coalition made itself known by policy decisions squarely aimed at the upward transfer of wealth from the majority to an ever smaller minority, inequality further worsening over the course of the full term to make the UK the most unequal country in the EU. Indeed, economic and social inequality have been furthered by the smoke and mirrors of spin that is the new myth of 'self-employment' to help 'create record levels of employment' as well as seeing 'record falls in unemployment' - the reality being poorly-remunerated piece work of some kind topped up with Tax Credits. 'Self-employment' of this kind individualizes what is far beyond the control of the individual - material means - whilst holding them directly responsible for it. Tax Credits are also in effect an employer subsidy when used as they are currently, to allow bosses to avoid having to pay higher wages or giving more hours aka underemployment.

Tax Credits have been the means by which bogus 'self-employment' has been able to operate ever since it became the preferred Tory myth behind the 'record' employment and unemployment numbers, but is as much a feature of another unfortunate and unwelcome feature of life in the present day UK: chronic underemployment. The new Tory government plans to cut Tax Credits as part of its mystery £12 billion of further welfare cuts amount to basically like sawing through the branch it is sitting on, given the fact that its own belief in the need for austerity is very much predicated on it.

Indeed the said Tory 'belief' in austerity reveals a naked ideological offensive against society and especially its poorest members both employed and unemployed. The ill-advised plan to hack away the very means on which its own confected 'record numbers' in employment are based - Tax Credits - is very likely to have 'unintended consequences' for the new incumbent government, the like of which it had not seriously expected or accounted for.

Austerity Britain 2015 might be called 'Thatcherism Redux' since the policies of the Tory government and the Tory-led coalition before it sought to further a similar 'rebooted' 'common sense' (post)-political ideology of the market as supreme good seen in sell-offs of publicly-owned assets, acceleration of internal markets in public services - de facto privatization, but not 'technically' so - corporate tax breaks and for the top 5%, and of course the mantra of 'welfare reform' to punish the unemployed. That chancellor George Osborne should have spoken of his "commitment to fight for full employment in Britain," before the election, was a black irony not lost then or now: 'full employment' not of course meaning anything like what the term means or meant.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) modestly put the numbers chronically underemployed at 3 million in the fourth quarter of 2014, and 4.6 million in 'self-employment' for the same period. Added to those figures, those 'officially' recorded as unemployed and all those 'helped' - compelled - by workfare of some kind and we approach something close to 10 million - much more the reality for 'hardworking families' and people being 'better off'.

There are big battles ahead both for Cameron and his government and indeed against it, the first mass anti-austerity protests in the last fortnight drew a quarter of a million, but 'A to B marches' are only one form of protest and will only achieve so much: multiple fronts for contesting austerity and the class-based political and legislative policies it embodies open up. Strike action - both official and unofficial - has succeeded in winning the London Living Wage for Ritzy cinema staff and resisting proposed redundancies, whilst the long-running 3Cosas cleaners' campaign at Senate House at the University of London secured not only the London Living Wage for all outsourced contract workers there, but 25 (increased from 20) days holiday and six months sick pay (dependent on length of service) after more than a year's worth of direct action. Both examples are just two which are bigger than the Tory government - or its coalition predecessor, and bigger than austerity, but in their successful campaigns they call the assumptions of both into question.

The 2015 general election may have been an unexpected victory for David Cameron but it is widely recognized that 63% did not vote for him or his party, become 76% if all those who did not vote at all are also added to that total; as such, the ancient relic of the political faction of the British ruling class called 'first past the post' is now under severe strain to claim to represent anything like 'democracy', and the future here as everywhere else, remains unwritten.

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