G.R. Askwith on the Labour Exchanges, Modern Job Centres and the Deliberate Creation of an ‘Reserve Army of the Unemployed’

I found a very interesting little snippet in T.O. Lloyd’s Empire to Welfare State: English History 1906-1985 3rd Edition (Oxford: OUP 1986). On page 16 he discusses how the Liberal government in 1908 set up the Labour Exchanges as a way of putting prospective employers and unemployed workers in contact with each other. He notes, however, that G.R. Askwith, who was the leading negotiator in labour disputes at the time, was later quite critical of them. He believed they made it too easy for employers to return to the Nineteenth century notion of ‘a reserve army of the unemployed’.

Which gives a clue where Hayek and Milton Friedman got some of their crappy ideas about the optimum level of unemployment from. The Angry Yorkshireman has pointed out that one the central ideas of the Chicago school, of which Friedman was a part, was that there should be an unemployment rate of 6 per cent in order to keep wages low. He’s point out how this idea permeates modern Tory economic dogma. When Osborne therefore starts making noises about combating unemployment, he is not talking about trying to return to full employment, or even getting it as low as possible. He deliberately makes vague and ambiguous comments, that sound as though he means to combat unemployment, but in fact mean that he intends to maintain the six per cent level. His intentions only become clear once you understand his policies’ basis in Friedman’s weird and unpleasant ideas.
It’s clear from this that Friedman got that part of his economic theory from 19th century Classical Economists.

It also seems to me that while Askwith may have been wrong about the Labour Exchanges, he would be absolutely right about modern Job Centres. Firstly, the recruitment aspect has been removed from them completely, and given to private recruitment centres and government outsourcing contractors. These in turn have been found to be monumentally inept at actually getting people into full-time paid work. In fact, they’re worse than the unemployed just looking for work on their own account without their dubious help.

Secondly, the Jobcentres are now run according to the Victorian notion of less eligibility. They try to make things as hard for the unemployed as possible in order to throw them off benefit. The attitude seems to be to harangue and bully people into finding work, or putting them on workfare to act as an unpaid labour force for the Tories’ backers in industry.

All this makes me wonder whether the failings of these organisations to get people into work aren’t actually part of their design. The government needs the electorate to believe it’s doing everything it can to get the unemployed into work, while actually maintaining a pool of the unemployed to keep those in work poor and desperate. And so the slightest excuse is found to throw the sick and unemployed off benefit, but not to make sure they’ve found work.

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One Response to “G.R. Askwith on the Labour Exchanges, Modern Job Centres and the Deliberate Creation of an ‘Reserve Army of the Unemployed’”

  1. Florence Says:

    I tend to agree that the implied policy is not the real agenda. It would be I conceivable that policies and systems that have cost £billions to achieve the opposite of the stated aim would still be running after 6 years of failure.

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