Cures for Unemployment
Through a summer of U-turns, the government has been clear about one thing. The furlough scheme will not be extended. When it ends on 31 October, those still on furlough – currently numbering 9.6 million – will either be forced to return to their jobs in the middle of the pandemic, or will find they have no job at all. ‘It’s wrong,’ according to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, ‘to keep people trapped in a situation and pretend there is always a job that they can go back to.’
But most people would probably prefer that to being unemployed. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, 1.3 million jobs will be lost if furlough ends on its intended date. As Germany, France and other countries extend their schemes, could another British government U-turn be in the making? Boris Johnson admits the UK ‘is now seeing a second wave’, and a growing number of local lockdowns, if not another national one, seem increasingly likely. Yet cross-party calls for a ‘targeted’ extension to furlough have been ignored. The shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, yesterday put forward a plan to retain workers on shorter hours using state subsidies (much like the French and German schemes). The government seems unlikely to adopt it.
There are no good reasons for furlough to end in October. The reason most consistently given – with an irony apparently lost on the government – is workers’ health. In an interview with the Evening Standard, Johnson emphasised that long-term furlough ‘is not healthy’, his words echoing those of a senior government source back in May, who worried that people had become ‘addicted to the scheme’ and needed to be ‘weaned’ off it. The right-wing press harbour similar concerns. The Times ran a piece on the ‘dangers of becoming addicted to Rishi Sunak’s job furlough scheme’, while the Spectator worried that ‘furlough would soon be a national addiction.’
There’s a long history of describing laid-off workers using metaphors of disease. The first comprehensive policy effort to deal with unemployment in the UK was the Labour Exchanges Act of 1909. ‘Relief works cannot seriously be regarded as a cure for unemployment,’ Gavin Hamilton said, proposing the bill in the House of Lords. ‘At the best they are only a palliative. What is wanted is not a drug to still the pain of this disease, but a cure which will reach deep down to its roots.’
Only recently, though, has unemployment come to be seen as a disease of the individual rather than social body. The idea that furlough could be addictive has a certain amount in common with the quasi-therapeutic discourse that went with New Labour’s outsourcing of jobseeker schemes to private welfare-to-work providers. Workshops hosted by the contractor A4E encouraged participants to see their failure to find work as the result of ‘low self-esteem’. Low labour demand and a saturated job market were no longer the problem. As one participant put it, ‘it was simply our mindset that was the barrier.’
But it was under the coalition government and the chaotic tenure of Iain Duncan Smith as work and pensions secretary that the rhetoric really took hold. Work is ‘good for your health’, he said in 2015. Duncan Smith’s pet project of Universal Credit was rolled out, along with significant cuts to disability welfare and the hurried introduction of Employment and Support Allowance, forcing more than a million people back to work, with sometimes fatal results. In a perverse effort to defend the mess, Duncan Smith doubled down on claims that employment is ‘like a health treatment’. He even said: ‘Work actually helps free people.’
The same empty dogma haunts the words of furlough’s critics and reluctant advocates. Though once a decent palliative, the medicine is now said to be worse than the disease, affecting the smooth running of markets and their actors, who are ultimately supposed to take care of themselves. Never mind that ending furlough will only further reduce people’s capacity to find work, as the ranks of the unemployed swell and competition intensifies for the few opportunities available. Cheaper solutions to unemployment are undoubtedly more attractive to the treasury than a scheme that costs around £14 billion a month. But existing schemes like Universal Credit have so far proven insufficient and will not magically become any more effective at the end of October.
Left out of treasury calculations is the needless loss of life. Michael Gove said this morning – and Boris Johnson confirmed this afternoon – that people should work from home if they can, though ‘if you are in a Covid-secure workplace, then you should be there if your job requires it.’ Those who leave furlough lucky enough still to have work will – if their employers require it – return to the unavoidably confined spaces of shops and offices, often travelling there on crowded buses and trains. Factor in the ongoing test and trace debacle, making workplace breakouts difficult to identify and contain, and it begins to look like a perfect storm on the horizon. We can only hope for yet another government U-turn.