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The left’s challenge is to unite & build a movement for socialist change & a people-centred economy – Ben Chacko on the fight for jobs & full employment

“At a time of enormous anxiety over jobs, joblessness can be a pivotal issue that unites millions in a fight to create & defend jobs that recreates a popular understanding that full employment is possible & desirable, good for your pay packet if you are in work & good for your small business.”

Ben Chacko

This is based on a speech by Ben Chacko at the recent Jobs Led Recovery event – Ben is the editor of The Morning Star:

We face a joblessness crisis in this country – the Resolution Foundation found last month that around two million people have been without work for at least six months.

Around 4.5 million are on the job retention scheme or furlough, and half of these people expect to lose their jobs as soon as government support is withdrawn.

Obviously this is linked to the pandemic and lockdowns, and sectors such as retail and hospitality have been especially hard hit with hundreds of thousands of job losses.

And the pandemic has intensified and exposed pre-existing inequalities with the employment rate for black people having fallen 26 times faster than for white people, and women both more likely to have lost their jobs and more likely to have seen their incomes cut if they have kept their jobs than men.

But it’s important to note that the joblessness crisis was not created by the pandemic. It’s been with us for some time. If we take a sector like retail, unions like Usdaw were calling for action to save our high streets long before the pandemic because of store closures and job losses.

The decline in high street shopping is an area you could say was driven by technology, because of the rise of online shopping, although there are other factors driving it – long working hours and long commutes meaning people don’t have time to go shopping, poverty pay and mass unemployment itself meaning people don’t have money to. The decline in high street shopping is linked to a social and economic model that imposes low pay, long hours and people travelling long distances to work.

Unemployment is dictated by a social and economic model way beyond a particular sector like retail. To people of my generation and younger – I was born under Thatcher – the existence of mass unemployment seems normal and maybe inevitable but actually it isn’t.

A line in Mark Steel’s book Reasons to be Cheerful mentions learning under Thatcher that unemployment hit three million and thinking that three million unemployed was the kind of thing you read about in the history books, the kind of thing that happened in the 30s, a historic injustice that had long been consigned to the past. Because before Thatcher full employment used to be a goal of government and an expectation of government.

There’s a myth promoted by free market zealots that there is something artificial about government creating jobs. The old Keynesian analogy of men being paid to dig holes and fill them in is often trotted out. But actually the current system destroys lots of useful jobs that a profit-driven operation thinks it can’t afford.

If we take transport and the relentless drive by government and employers to get rid of guards on trains, conductors on buses. The public want guards on trains. People don’t just feel safer with guards on trains, they are safer with guards on trains. The RMT union has repeatedly flagged the rise in crimes, including violent crimes, on trains as staff numbers are cut.

So guards are useful. But to a privateer they aren’t profitable, so they can be dispensed with, and if that means more people are going to be robbed or assaulted tough luck. Actually we should look at guards as we look at the fire brigade: they aren’t there to make a profit. They’re there to provide a useful service.

There are lots of other examples of how paring things to the bone results in a worse service in transport alone – look at the collapse of bus services outside the biggest urban areas – and this doesn’t even touch on the number of useful things we ought to be doing in this country that we’re currently not doing like improving our infrastructure, building an environmentally sustainable economy and so on.

So we need a different approach. Rather than allowing the market to dictate outcomes we ought to decide as citizens what outcomes we want and take action collectively to reach them.

One of those outcomes should be full employment because we know the huge waste of human potential, the debilitating effect on families and whole communities that mass unemployment creates, but also because there are a hell of a lot of useful things that need doing which aren’t necessarily going to provide an immediate return for an investor.

Here we’re marching in step with what the TUC has called a new deal for workers. Unions that have campaigned on this such as the CWU have pointed to the unsustainable character of the current profit-extractive model, especially in a world of short-term shareholdings and ownership dominated by a handful of footloose transnationals who have no long-term interest in the welfare of a company or even a country.

So you see companies being asset-stripped and dumped with the workers and communities they served cast aside. Or the most profitable parts of a service are hived off and what’s left is declared unsustainable – we’ve seen the bids to do this in Royal Mail by separating off parcels delivery, which is growing, from letters, which aren’t, and then saying we have to lose the universal service obligation. Everyone’s a loser – though fortunately the CWU appear to have seen off this threat in Royal Mail in a victory that could hardly be more significant for our movement.

The destruction of services in this way is a direct cause of unemployment. But in a broader sense an economy designed to extract profit is an economy that doesn’t deliver good outcomes for people, and because mass unemployment reduces workers’ bargaining power – we’re seeing that in fire and rehire at the moment – it drives down pay and conditions for people who are employed as well.

We really need to create an understanding of how all these issues are linked to build unity around the changes we want. There’s an economic case for full employment but I also think there is a political need for the labour movement to take up the battle for jobs as a unifying national campaign.

The sense that things can’t go on as they are is very widespread in Britain. We’ve seen a big revival of socialist thinking with Corbynism, but what’s less remarked on is how the polarisation we saw in recent British politics showed an almost universal rejection of the status quo.

There was some overlap between Brexit supporters and Corbyn supporters – including me and some others on this panel – but there wasn’t much, and if support for Brexit and support for Corbyn both indicated deep dissatisfaction with the status quo as I believe they did, we’re actually talking about a big majority of the population.

The challenge for the political left is to unite all this dissatisfaction in a movement for socialist change and a people-centred economy, and a weakness is that most people aren’t organised, trade unions only represent about one in four workers.

At a time of enormous and widespread anxiety over jobs, joblessness can be a pivotal issue that unites millions of people in a fight to create and defend jobs that recreates a popular understanding that full employment is possible and desirable, good for your pay packet if you are in work, good for your small business. And it can be an advert for the trade union movement.

Actions like the hunger marches organised by the Communist Party in the 1930s drew the country’s attention. The TUC has talked in recent years about holding a day of action to showcase the new deal for workers and the importance of being in a union – a big initiative like a new Jarrow march could do that and bring people into the orbit of the labour movement.

That’s what we need to do because we keep losing the popular vote to the Tories even at a time of profound social unrest. We have to mount a campaign that looks outwards and speaks to everyone – I don’t think there’s any campaign that can do that as effectively as a campaign for full employment.

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