George Osborne has announced that he wants to make full employment a key policy goal – and that Britain should aspire to the highest employment rate in the OECD. It sounds like a significant shift in policy from a party that has previously accepted unemployment as a price worth paying to achieve its policy goals.
But it’s not enough.
Consider some of the things that are going on in the UK economy: most notably a productivity crisis that is baffling some economists, but whose roots surely lie in historically low investment (especially in the private sector) and the creation of low-paid jobs, especially through self-employment. But also an economy in which real wages have fallen sharply, in which an increasing proportion of jobs are insecure, based on zero-hours contracts; and where, increasingly, full-time employment does not pay a living wage and pay for millions of people has to be topped-up through benefits. Moreover, the unemployment figures conceal the growing number of people in workfare schemes which, as I have argued before, actually damage the economy by reducing real wages. The UK is looking more and more like a rentier economy.
The question one is bound to ask in the light of all this is whether headline unemployment figures are still really useful as a measure of economic activity, let alone of well-being in the wider sense. They tell us nothing about the quality, productiveness, security and sustainability of jobs. Moreover, Osborne has made it clear that his conversion is in part based on his view that the state cannot create jobs; nothing he has said is incompatible to a further race to the bottom, in which Osborne and his allies seek “competitiveness” by reducing wage costs, through low pay, deregulation, long-hours, opposition to trade unionism and vicious and aggressive sanctions against those who are deemed to be economically unproductive.
There is a much bigger debate that we’re simply not having; about the nature of work under late capitalism – the debate that William Morris initiated about useful work versus useless toil, and the role of work in securing more general well-being; but there is every indication that Osborne’s goal will emphasise numbers over quality. Let’s aim for full employment by all means, but let’s also ask the big questions about work and well-being. That’s where the debate should be now for anyone serious about progressive politics.