The spectre of the workhouse

IF WE WERE to believe the Tory pundits the Government’s plan to force unemployed workers to do menial tasks in return for benefits will be a positive boon to welfare claimants. They tell us that unpaid compulsory community work like sweeping up and gardening will enhance their future employability and restore dignity to the long-term unemployed.

But no one, not even the media gurus, seriously believes that the new scheme will actually reduce the number of jobless while this sort of menial community work can hardly be considered training.

Why it would enhance anyone’s CV beggars belief. Even the cleaning and refuse companies want recruits ready and willing to do unsocial and low-paid work — not those simply forced into pushing a broom around the streets to keep their dole money.

Past experience proves the point. Though six-month “training courses” at work camps operated widely in Britain during the Great Slump of the 1930s the vast majority of the young men forced to attend, some 95 per cent, still couldn’t get jobs when they came out.

This new scheme can do nothing to reduce unemployment and in any case that’s not the real intention of the new programme, which claimants will have to accept or face having their benefits stopped for up to three months.

In fact it’s just another rehash of the American “workfare” programme where claimants have long had to do all sorts of menial community tasks to obtain their weekly pittance.

This proposal, launched by Work and Pensions Minister Iain Duncan Smith this week, is designed to pave the way for further reductions in benefits under the cover of a new “universal credit”. It also seeks to create a new low caste out of the millions out of work and the millions to come, as the slump hits harder down the line and to create a feeling of smugness amongst those still in work, which they hope will be converted into support for the Con-Dem Coalition.

What lies behind it is the Tories’ principled objection to paying any benefits whatsoever. When unemployment benefit was established by the first post-war Labour Government it was seen as a return for the compulsory national insurance contributions set up to partially pay for it. Now it’s portrayed as some sort of charity paid to those whom the bourgeois press routinely depict as work-shy scroungers.

The vast majority of the unemployed are out of work because Britain and the rest of the capitalist world are in the biggest slump since the Second World War. While Cameron and Clegg talk about tightening “our” belts the ruling class have no intention of tightening theirs or making any sacrifice whatsoever. That’s why they have brought in an austerity plan that puts the entire burden of the crisis on the backs of working people.

Massive cuts in health, education and the other public services and more attacks on union rights to further reduce wages in real terms are on the way. Labour is now ahead in the opinion polls but the Miliband leadership seems to think that all they need to do is wait for a huge swing at the next election in five years time. That may suit Labour’s right-wing but working people cannot wait five years.

Growing disquiet amongst the Lib-Dem rank-and-file shows that the Coalition can be broken. Recent strikes show that working people are prepared to fight. The TUC and the entire labour movement must mobilise mass opinion against the cuts and the rest of the reactionary austerity plan throughout the country well before the Scottish, Welsh and local elections next year.