Britain - The Job Seekers' Allowance and the fight against the casualisation of the working class

Jul/Aug 1996

The introduction of the "Job Seekers' Allowance" (JSA), the new benefit system for the unemployed, is supposed to reach its final stage next October.

Once it is fully implemented, if it ever is, this new scheme will be the most sweeping attack against the rights of the unemployed since the thirties. Not only will it be the first time a postwar government has dared to impose such a drastic cut in unemployment benefit, but in addition, the unemployed will be submitted to a regime akin to an institutional inquisition and pressures against which they will have no real protection or redress. The days of the Victorian Boards of Guardians may have been over for a long time, but the JSA is yet another step toward reinstituting them, albeit in a different form - that of Employment Service managers on performance-related pay whose sole brief will be to use their considerable new discretionary powers to reduce drastically the dole count.

Attacks against the unemployed have always been ultimately used by the capitalist class as a means to weaken the working class as a whole and the JSA is no exception. But in this respect, the situation is somewhat different today from what it was, say, ten or fifteen years ago.

In the days when being on the dole was still an exceptional situation which concerned only a relatively well- delineated and stable minority, such attacks amounted to a sideways blow at the working class, through one of its weakest and most defenceless sections. In those days, when such attacks were allowed to go through, they were damaging for the working class as a whole, primarily because they gave the bosses reason to feel confident, but not because the damage caused was decisive for the future.

Those days, however, are gone. Today, a very significant section of the working class is forced periodically onto the dole by the on-going wave of redundancies and closures and the increasing use of short-term, insecure, if not casual, labour by the bosses. Another sizeable section of the working class is confined permanently to unemployment for reasons of age, regional economic dereliction, social or physical circumstances, etc.. The official headcount for the unemployed - at around 2.2m today - has long been meaningless. By including those on short-term state schemes and women who stand to lose more by claiming than they would gain, the Unemployment Unit reaches an estimated total of 3.3m. Adding to this figure those workers who are unemployed but are not legally entitled to claim (for instance, due to having been forced into a "self-employed" or semi-retired status), those who are entitled to claim but would gain very little (like those working irregular part-time jobs on a casual basis), those who have given up claiming, etc.., the total comes nearer to 5m or almost 18% of the workforce, at any one time.

But these figures are actually very far from reflecting the actual proportion of the working class which hits unemployment at various points during the year, in between short-term jobs for instance, for durations which may be very variable. Very few attempts at measuring this flow have been made, primarily due to the extreme reluctance of the state to provide any measure of the increasingly precarious conditions imposed on working people. The few available estimates, however, show that around 25% of the workforce become unemployed over the course of one year, and that this figure rises to 30% and more when taking into account only the non-skilled section, which makes up the majority of the working class.

This is to say that today, the dividing line between the employed and the unemployed is increasingly blurred in the working class and that any successful attack on the unemployed, like the introduction of the JSA, can only have far-reaching and direct consequences on the working class as a whole. Treating these attacks as the sole concern of the unemployed makes absolutely no sense. They cannot be separated from the overall profit drive of the capitalists against workers' wages and conditions, nor can the fight for the rights of the unemployed be separated from the fight against redundancies and increased exploitation at work.

A series of cynical cuts

The JSA is in fact a whole package of cuts, of which the new allowance itself is but one aspect. Of course, this package did not come out of the blue. It is the latest, and admittedly the most stringent, of a long series of changes aimed at reducing the benefits paid directly or indirectly to the unemployed.

So far, in most cases, anyone who became unemployed and had paid National Insurance Contributions for long enough while he was working, was automatically entitled to a full 12 months on Unemployment Benefit, regardless of his savings, family situation, etc.. The only exception was introduced some years ago, in order to "punish" people who were "guilty" of having "made themselves unemployed" (by resigning from a job or by being sacked for gross misconduct) - they got no benefit for 26 weeks (instead of six weeks previously). But even then, they were at least automatically entitled to a special "hardship", albeit reduced, benefit.

Under the JSA, anyone who has registered since 8 April this year will get only six months of non means-tested benefit instead of 12. There will be no automatic hardship payments. Moreover, young workers aged 18-24 will get a lower rate of benefit (those under 18 already lost any automatic entitlement thanks to Thatcher). In addition, there will be no automatic additional payment when another adult is financially dependent on the claimant's income (up to now this was worth £28.05/week). In other words, the unemployed will find that for the same amount paid in National Insurance Contributions, the benefit they get is now cut by 50% - more in many cases - and by 100% if they are "convicted" of having "made themselves unemployed". This has a name - outright theft!

After these first six months on non means-tested benefit, claimants will be switched to a means-tested one, on a lower rate - the equivalent of what was, up to now, Income Support. The consequence of this will be that a significant number of people who would previously have received Unemployment Benefit for another six months, will suddenly get no benefit at all - this will be the case, for instance, for workers having more than £8000 in the bank (which is not unusual in case of redundancy), but also workers whose partner works more than 24hrs a week.

Overall, many unemployed will lose out, at least after the first six months. But in addition, many more will lose out as a result of the rest of the JSA package.

For instance, one element of this package came into force last October. It says that anyone taking a new mortgage from that date will no longer be entitled to housing benefit after 8 weeks, as was the case before, but only after 39 weeks. The government washed their hands of any consequences, by making it compulsory for mortgages to include an insurance policy covering mortgage payments in case of redundancy. Not only are workers made to pay for this additional insurance (despite the fact that they already pay taxes which are supposed to finance housing benefit), but in addition it turns out that these policies only protect the lenders against any loss of money, but do not protect the defaulters against repossession - and quite legally so!

Another element of the JSA package is even more cynical. By a sleight of hand, the government changed the former invalidity benefit into a new "incapacity benefit", in April last year. Behind this change of name was a much narrower definition of entitlement which, in the first seven months, resulted in 39,626 claimants being disqualified and forced to claim Income Support instead (and by October, JSA) which is at a lower rate. In an answer to a parliamentary question, it was said that in a full year it was expected that 220,000 claimants would lose invalidity benefit while 90,000 new claimants would be turned away. The resulting "savings", according to the government, were expected to be as high as £1.5bn in a full year.

The same cynical calculation is behind the JSA allowance itself. In another parliamentary answer, in late 1993, the government explained that, in the course of the first year, they expected a quarter-of-a-million people to lose entitlement to the non means-tested benefit and that 90,000 of them would not qualify for the means-tested part of JSA, resulting in "savings" of £210m.

Of course, in all these statements, the word "savings" has to be put between quotes as these so-called savings, paid for dearly by more hardship for the unemployed, are not being saved for working people - they will go straight into the pockets of the rich.

Policing the unemployed

The key element in the new JSA is that it effectively merges the old dual system - contributory non means-tested benefit on the one hand, means-tested benefit on the other - into one single system. The obvious aim of the change is to blur the borderline between the two kinds of benefits, and to do away with the idea, which is still widespread among most workers, and rightly so, that they have legal rights and a legal entitlement to a pre-defined benefit.

As mentioned before, this right was already severely undermined long ago with the introduction of the 26 weeks penalty period for those "making themselves unemployed". Subsequently, a whole series of new notions were introduced, institutionalised and turned into bureaucratic criteria. This started with the requirement that the claimant should be "available for work", or else face disqualification. All kinds of tests were introduced to assess this availability, including long series of silly questions, which were as many traps to catch people out. Then came another requirement, that of "actively seeking work", again with the same sly pseudo-psychological tests.

So far, however, the penalties were mostly in the form of pointless "Restart" interviews in which the claimant's failure to find a job was scrutinised and his goodwill put in question (as if anyone would choose to live on the starvation rate of the dole, given the chance!). Then there were useless so-called training courses (restart courses, job plan workshops and the like) in which bored trainers were meant to interest the trainees in the thrilling art of writing CVs for non-existent jobs. Probably the main reason for the mushrooming of so many of these courses was that they were contracted out and became the sole source of income for a number of adhoc training companies set up to gobble up the state funds made available.

Seen from the right distance, all these bureaucratic exercises were merely laughable. But seen through the eyes of confused claimants who were periodically threatened by interviewers with the loss of benefit, if they took these threats seriously, they were a nightmare and led to many giving up claiming altogether, with or without having found a job - which was exactly what the aim of the government was.

So far, however, only these courses were really compulsory. No sanctions could be taken against a claimant for refusing to go on a scheme. And, to their credit, many Employment Service workers were reluctant to go too far in putting pressure on claimants by withdrawing their benefit.

Judging from the new provisions included in the JSA, the capitalist class no longer considers these pressures sufficient. They want more people, not just to drop out of claiming, but to be forced out of the dole safety net. Already, last year for the first time, in the run-up to JSA, the government introduced internal targets for the number of claimants to be referred for benefit sanction. Officially, this target was reached, with 162,000 referrals - more than twice as many as the previous year. The official target for 1996-97, as leaked in the press, is said to be 215,000.

Where the JSA is meant to make a difference in this respect, however, is that it is designed to create a deep gulf of hostility between benefit employees and claimants, thereby breaking the tacit sympathy that often exists between them.

Instead of being an exceptional occurrence, the interview is now meant to take place every time the claimant comes in to sign on. The interviewer is meant to "instruct" the claimant to do what he thinks is necessary for him to find a job - including changing his appearance or applying for certain jobs. Failure to comply, on the part of the claimant, is meant to be punished by reducing his benefit by up to 100%, for periods which are entirely up to the benefit employee. In addition, what used to be voluntary work schemes are meant to become compulsory, however useless they may be.

Pilot schemes have been organised in various towns, showing what is in store. One, called Project Work, has been run in Humberside and Kent. Claimants who have been out of work for more than two years are given half-hour interviews every time they sign on, to test their willingness to take any kind of work, regardless of wages, and impose sanctions on them if they don't. After three months of this treatment come three months of compulsory workfare. There is not even some vague pretext about training. The point is simply and openly to force people to work for their benefits as a punishment or else drop out of the dole system and take the first job on offer, no matter how low-paid it is.

The bosses want a "culture of casualisation"

As far as the capitalist class and their politicians are concerned, unemployment as we know it must go. Not that they intend to do anything to ensure that every worker has a decent job, of course. They only want to see the end of the notion that if millions of workers are being pushed onto the scrap heap, it is because they are victims of the criminal bankruptcy of the system, of its incapacity to use the resources of the working population to the full, let alone to cater for its needs. Instead, they want the unemployed to get the blame for being out of a job and to act not like victims but like offenders. They want to see an army of keen and lean "job seekers" standing to attention, offering themselves for any kind of job, at any kind of rate, under the permanent threat of punishment should they fail to prove, or even look, eager enough.

To use today's trendy liberal jargon, the capitalists want to see the end of the so-called "job-for-life culture". Getting a regular income from a socially-useful job - which is what all workers would do, given the chance - should now be considered as an exorbitant privilege! Instead the working class should get used to a status of permanent casualisation, half-way between low-paid employment and unemployment, constantly pressured to take the first job on offer no matter how bad and unsuitable it may be, to fit in with the requirements of the capitalists' profit drive. This is what the capitalists want to see and this is what their politicians, whether Tory or Labour, want to deliver for them. In Blair's own words, this is the only way forward in "today's competitive world" to create and maintain a "competitive and flexible labour market".

Such is the message that workers get today from ministers, politicians, economists and the like, whose "usefulness" to society is confined to licking the boots of an increasingly parasitic capitalist class and slavishly facilitating their plundering of society and exploitation of working people.

Last year, Tory minister Michael Portillo was quoted saying that, in his view, £60/week was a reasonable wage. More recently, his colleague Peter Lilley used a sermon he was delivering in London's Southwark Cathedral to argue that increasing benefits by £15/week (a suggestion made by the Rowntree Foundation) would mean that an extra 1.2 million would be "pushed into dependency". These are people whose basic salary is 12 times the dole and who are so "dependent" on their well-paid consultancies and business interests that they refuse to disclose them to the public! And they have the nerve to talk about the unemployed developing a "dependency" on their dole money? No wonder these cynical hypocrites need to hide behind the Church to justify their attempts to impose a "culture of casualisation" on the whole working class.

When a major and wealthy company like Ford starts resorting increasingly to lower paid subcontractors, even on its assembly lines, when a large company like Rover floats the idea of forcing its workforce into 2-year individual contracts, this can only reflect a general trend in the capitalist class. When the weight of unemployment is no longer sufficient to further cut their wage bills, as is the case now, the capitalists look for other ways. They hope that casualisation will do the trick. And as is shown by those industries in which it is already widespread, it can indeed do the trick - with the help of gimmicks like the JSA! That is, of course, only as long as the working class does not take up the challenge.

Whether employed or not - there is only one working class

That the unemployed should react to any attack against them and fight against cuts like those involved in the JSA, goes without saying.

But it is one thing to say this and it is quite another to argue that the working class should set itself the aim of restoring the welfare state to what it was, say twenty or thirty years ago, let alone in 1945.

Contrary to what is often said, the welfare state was not a "conquest" won by the working class, but rather the result of a cross-party agreement between politicians seeking to preserve the interests of the capitalist class. Nor has the working class ever had any say in the running of the welfare state.

First and foremost, the welfare state was conceived to harness the working class. It was an instrument designed to prevent social unrest in Britain (just like the welfare states which were created in most Western countries in the same period, in fact) and a tool used for over three decades to help the bosses to keep wages down.

Furthermore, while the setting up of the welfare state took a sizeable part of the state's resources out of the reach of the capitalists, there was a combination of factors, all direct consequences of the war, which made this arrangement attractive to the capitalist class: the capitalists' fear of being confronted with a revolutionary explosion in the postwar period (similar to that after the previous war), especially in view of the need to prolong the war in order to try to salvage the British Empire; their willingness to accept some constraints in return for the state undertaking the enormous long-term investment made necessary by the destruction of the war; and their desire to get back to business on the world market as fast as possible, at a time when considerable new opportunities were on offer and competition was still manageable.

The scene today is very different from what it was in 1945. The world capitalist crisis has been back for more than two decades. The capitalists have been able to use the demoralising impact of the crisis on the working class, with the help of the trade-union and labour bureaucracy, to push its conditions further and further down. Having reached this stage and acquired such a taste for making quick and fat profits despite the crisis, the capitalists are bound to cling to their gains with a determination proportionate to the mess which their system is in. Because for all their bragging about recoveries, emerging markets, and all the rest of it, they know all too well that their elbow room is limited. It is precisely for this reason that they no longer invest in production, preferring instead the quick short-term profit offered by the financial casino markets.

This is why it would make no sense today for the working class to hark back to the "good old days" of the welfare state. What sense would it make to aim at restoring a welfare state capable of ensuring a decent standard of living for the 20% or so of the workforce which is actually deprived of a job, while the remaining 80% would remain overworked and underpaid? Even assuming this was achievable, what sort of society would that be?

No, if the working class sets itself a perspective, it should be to stop the capitalists' profit drive, by imposing its control on their investment and management decisions, to ensure that no more job cuts are allowed and that whenever any profit is made, it is used to pay proper wages and to start useful production and therefore new jobs, instead of being shifted into the pockets of the over-wealthy or onto financial markets. Likewise, the working class could aim at preventing the state from depleting public funds by handouts and tax breaks to the rich so that they can be used instead to create useful jobs which are desperately needed in public services.

In the early 20s, the activists of the fledgling Communist Party who led the National Unemployed Workers' Movement attempted to combine the numeric strength of the unemployed with the industrial muscle of the employed to force companies to stop imposing overtime on workers and to take on new hands. They had a few successes in this field, despite their small numbers. In any case it was a step in the right direction.

This is the kind of tradition that the working class will need to re-establish in this country if the capitalist profit drive and its consequences - like the JSA, casualisation, low pay, etc.. - are to be defeated. The fact that benefit workers have already been taking action, although mostly on their own so far, against the JSA, also is a move in the right direction. But the fightback will have to be built up across all sections of workers, white and blue collar, employed and unemployed, skilled and unskilled, so as to ensure that the working class confronts the general offensive of the bosses in one solid block, with all its forces.

If and when this happens, we might even remember the liberal trendies and crack a joke about a "new culture of workers' control" - except this "culture" is the only one that has the potential to protect society against the dangerous lunacies of capitalism!