Wednesday, January 01, 1997

Budget Defecit

Headline, Daily Mail
I was unemployed, on and off, for ten years; I've been employed for barely a year. It already seems like a different world. When you are on the dole, your whole life slows down. Everything is placed on pause. You find yourself staying in bed for 24 hours at a time. Worse, you start to wander—looking at the toy department of Woolworth's, browsing books in the library, but somehow lacking the motivation to actually read anything. Why start a book today, when you can start it just as well tomorrow, or the next day? You start to think that you have really achieved something if you get out of bed and buy a pint of milk. Oprah Winfrey and The Archers become punctuation marks. And the cards in the dole officer say 'must have own transport' and the adverts in the papers are for jobs with titles you don't even know the meaning of, and the only reason you can find for sending off application is to get a rejection letter to use to fend off the ill-mannered clerk when you sign on and claim dole for another fortnight. You want a job, desperately, but after a few weeks of it, you can't see any way out of it.
With stick and carrot, Brown goes to war on the young jobless!
Headline, Daily Mail
Unemployment benefit is £39 a week. In my new job, after tax, rent, poll tax, two lots of water rates (one for drinking and one for shitting); telephone bill; electricity bill; television licence and Internet subscription; I am left with £100 a week in my pocket. It is often hard to manage. I rarely have much left at the end of the month. A pair of trousers in Marks and Spencers costs £35. I am a bachelor.
'With the first Labour Budget in 18 years, Gordon Brown yesterday launched the party's crusade to put an army of youngsters to work.'
Front page, Daily Mail
At the top of the Christmas Steps in Bristol there was a skinhead with a begging bowl and a hand-written sign saying 'poems for sale'. I didn't go and talk to him, perhaps I should have. The recent changes in the rules mean that it is increasingly hard for single people to claim Housing Benefit. When I was on the dole, there were rumours that a Workfare (work for dole) scheme was going to be introduced. I became half afraid that it would be a choice between a government make-work scheme and losing my benefit. I pictured myself blowing my last weeks dole on a second hand lap top, and camping outside the job centre until I was evicted, writing articles and poetry and selling them to people, getting my name in the paper and getting evicted and sent to prison. Had it come to it, I think I might even have had the courage of my convictions. I'd dislike prison less than working outdoors, anyway.
'What is reassuring is that, if they spurn this heavily subsidised bureaucratically clumsy chance to acquire the work habit, it seems that they will lose 60% of their benefits. Who knows? Maybe only a New Labour Government can get that tough with youngsters who are work shy.'
Editorial Daily Mail
We in the dole queue (I had not thought debt had undone so many) did not want 'work'. We wanted 'a job.' 'Work' is an odious necessity, the curse of Adam and the drinking classes. 'A Job' is a place to go in the daytime, a place to interact with a circle of acquaintances while doing something which you are fairly good at. 'A lawyer' they say on the American cop shows 'Isn't what I do; it's who I am'. The unemployed don't know who they are. I once worked in a brewery, pilling cans of Castlemain XXXX on a conveyer belt in steel toe capped boots which didn't quite fit. The other employees talked about niggers and totty. I was the only person there who had never been in gaol. One shut one's eyes, counted a hundred cans, and looked at the clock to see how many minutes had passed. The money was good. It may have been work, but it was the antithesis of a job.
'The carrots being phoney, then, everything will depend on the ferocity with which the stick is applied and the accuracy with which it falls on the welfare donkey's expensive rump. Will the nerve of Gordon Brown and of the Government as a whole, hold steady when the unemployed and the single mothers begin to squeal at their reduced benefits? We will see'
Paul Johnson, Daily Mail.
As a nation we suffer from Post Puritan Work Ethic Disorder. Smoothed clothes look nicer than wrinkled ones. Arithmetic is easier if you can do single figured sums in your head. So you have to resign yourself to hateful tasks like ironing and learning your tables. But there are crazy, dangerous, evil people who think that its the ironing and the learning which are the point. We wear suits and do maths because ironing and rote-learning are character building. Work, particularly when boring and done by poor people, is a good thing. Smartness and correct sums show that you are the sort of person who puts in the hours learning and ironing. They show that you are Elect. Drip dry trousers and adding machines are bad things, wicked things. While Tony Blair is giving laptop computers to every school child in the country, David Blunket is taking away their pocket calculators. The unemployed are the most wicked of all; and paying them money compounds the wickedness. The welfare state says you can have food and clothes and medicine and somewhere to live irrespective of whether you work. It contradicts the puritan work ethic. It flies in the face of the will of Calvin's God. It must be abolished at all costs.
'In Britain today, one in five of working age households has no-one earning a wage. In place of welfare, there should be work.'
Gordon Brown's Budget speech
In place of welfare, there should be work. And in place of doctors, there should be well people; in place of a defence policy, there should be love and kindness, in place of poverty, there should be champagne and caviar. Welfare means 'pay when you are out of work.' If you work to earn it, it is not welfare, but 'wages'.
'It is time for welfare state to put opportunity again in people's hands. So we will create a new ladder of opportunity.'
Opportunity for what? To have a job, an identity? To do the thing that you always wanted to do, to find out who you are? To do mindless, soulless, gut-eating work at John Smiths brewery? To leave your children with a child minder while you go to a factory and spend all day making useless plastic goods which no-one needs, and to think that you are a good parent because you can use the wage-packet to buy your children useless plastic goods which no-one needs?
'Starting from next year, every young person age 18-25 who is unemployed for more than six months will be offered the first step on the employment ladder.'
If I offer you my last Rolo, I am implying that I have a Rolo to give you. You have a perfect right to say 'no thank you'. If I am holding you down and forcing it down your throat through a funnel and tube; or if I live in a society which gives me the right to apply a stick to your expensive rump if you do not eat it; or if all non-Rolo eaters are to be thrown out of their homes, then we do not call it 'offering' any more.
'Tomorrow the Secretary for Education and Employment will detail the four options. All involved training leading to qualification: a job with an employer...'
Is Mr. Brown going to offer the young unemployed jobs? Is that his pledge? A job for every one of the 250,000 young people who do not have one? A real job with a real wages packet? If that is his pledge, then my quarrel with him ends here.
Yet nowhere in his budget is there one word about where he is going to magic these 250,000 jobs from. It could be that the Daily Mail is right, and that these 250,000 vacancies already exist. The 250,000 young unemployed are simply work shy. They need only be persuaded, motivated, encouraged, forced (or, as we say in New English 'offered') to take them, and the unemployment problem goes away. If this is not the case—if the 250,000 vacancies do not exist, then Mr Brown has made a null statment. The 250,000 have the 'opportunity' to get a job, if they can find one, at this moment. They have also the 'opportunity' to take tea at the Ritz, granted that they are prepared to blow their cheque in one go and own the appropriate suit and shoes.
' with a voluntary organisation...'
This option also exists already. Any unemployed person may (subject to filling in a lot of tedious forms) do voluntary work while he is unemployed.
' with the environmental task force...'
The Environmental Task Force translates as 'doing manual labour for no pay.' Young people are sent to do useful work like 'park clearing or home insulation' and are paid wages equivilent to benefit £39 a week
'for those without basic qualifications, full-time education....'
If there are people of 18-25 without 'basic qualifications' (whatever that may turn out to mean) the option of full time education seems like a good idea. But again, this situation exists at present: if you've got no qualifications, there are all sorts of full and part time courses that you can go on.
'There will be no fifth option—to stay at home on full benefit. So when they sign on to benefit, they will be signing up for work. Benefits will be cut if young people refuse to take up these opportunities.'
Benefit will be cut.
At this moment, if you are unemployed the state will pay you benefit, which, according to my UB40 was 'the amount of money the government says you need to live on.' You are expected to look for a job, and you may take on voluntary work or go a course.
Brown's 'New Deal' amounts to nothing more than turning these two 'mays' into 'musts', and adding an additional 'must', that of manual labour.
'If you do not get a job, and if you already have basic skills (e.g, if you are an unemployed graduate) then you must go and do voluntary work. If you do not, then we will send you to do manual labour. Coercion, punishment, force, Paul Johnson's stick, will be used to force you to do this: your benefit will be cut by 60%—to £15.40 a week.'
It may be—I am not going to argue the case—that the puritan ethic is right and that work (cleaning parks and insulating lofts) is Good and unemployment (the unemployed) are Wicked. It may be that idle hands get up to mischief; that much 20th century crime and depression is the result of people being under-occupied; or even that hard work is God's way of showing that you are pre-destined for salvation. I do not wish for the moment to argue whether this, the traditional Conservative outlook is right or wrong. The point is that it is what lies behind the first Labour budget in 18 years. At any rate, the Dailies Mail and Telegraph think so, and praise Labour for being, in this respect, more right wing than the Conservatives.
When a wicked king imposes a rule, he tells you that he is granting you a new right; when he prohibits something, he tells you that you are gaining a new freedom.
The Daily Mail make no secret of their enthusiasm for coercion. They talk of 'putting the young unemployed back to work' of what the unemployed will 'have to' do, and of carrots and sticks and being thrashed by Paul Johnson. They are quite clear that the unemployed themselves are the problem, and that Workfare is something which is going to be done to them and serve them jolly well right.
Gordon Brown talks about options and choices and ladders and welfare. He talks about the right to work, says that unemployment is a social problem and implies that Workfare is something that he is going to do for the unemployed. Yet at bottom, he is saying precisely the same thing as the Daily Mail, and knows that he is.
The Daily Mail is honest, brutal, straightforward, cruel, fascistic. Reading it makes me want to go and punch them in the face. Gordon Brown is mealy mouthed, hypocritical, honey tongued. Listening to him makes me want to run to the bathroom and vomit.
And there are in this country people who think that we elected a Labour government.