Why the unemployed are the new paedophiles
Clue: it's not because they like having sex with children.
It's because, along with the war in Afghanistan, they're one of the only two major campaigning issues on which there isn't even a manufactured illusion of disagreement between the three main parties standing in the General Election of 2010. Everyone is singing in perfect harmony from the same hymn sheet on this one: the unemployed are dangerous and despicable criminals.
And not just criminals, of course. The media routinely portrays anyone out of work as an evil, lazy scrounger, committed to bleeding taxpayers dry while laughing openly in their faces to add insult to injury.
Disgusting as it is, it's a clever strategy which appeals to both ends of the political spectrum simultaneously. It feeds the prejudices of the wealthy and fortunate, whose mantra is that anyone can become rich if they work hard, and that therefore anyone who's poor MUST by definition be a feckless idler worthy only of contempt.
But it also strikes a chord with the working poor, who see themselves struggling to pay ever-soaring bills despite toiling away diligently at low-paid jobs, and feel cheated that their hard work leaves them seemingly no better off than those on benefits doing nothing.
So while traditionally it's been the Tories who vilify and persecute the poor, the other parties have in recent years also woken up to the fact that there are some easy votes to be had by attacking society's most vulnerable people. (The Lib Dems have in fact been mostly quiet over the issue, except to accept the need for "drastic reform" and chip at a few small corners of Labour's 2009 reform bill where it concerned the disabled.)
The poor tend to vote Labour anyway, so the Tories and Lib Dems have nothing to lose by picking on them, while Labour cynically realises that the corrupt electoral system protects their urban heartlands. (Even if half of the Labour vote in an inner-city seat switches in desperation to the BNP or just stays at home, the Labour candidate will still have a majority of thousands.)
This means that Labour can safely make a play for Daily Mail votes in marginal Middle England constituencies – the only ones that actually matter under FPTP – by hitting out at the poor, while running no electoral risk, because even if poor people are angry at being betrayed by Labour for 13 years they essentially have nowhere else to go.
Making scapegoats out of the unemployed, then, is politically a win-win scenario. Since most of them live in urban constituencies they have no electoral voice, while there are massive potential gains from pillorying them. At the same time, of course, the attack can be cloaked in the language of concern, under the pretence of helping the "deserving" unemployed back into work while cracking down on the "scroungers".
The only problem with this approach is that the numbers don't add up.
Unemployment statistics in the modern UK comprise a bewildering array of figures. There are headline unemployment totals, "claimant counts", people who are "economically inactive" and a whole slew of other categories whose meanings are opaque and never explained. They're published by the government's Office for National Statistics, so let's see if we can make some sense of them.
The figures for April 2010 run as follows:
(people looking for work and claiming Job Seeker's Allowance)
(essentially people who are unemployed and actively seeking work, but are ineligible for JSA for a variety of reasons, eg they have more than a certain amount of savings or a partner who is in work. Something I didn't know before writing this feature was that this "headline" unemployment figure, the one that's always quoted on the news, is actually an estimate. It's arrived at by extrapolating a labour-market survey, albeit a very large one which covers around 50,000 households.)
(this figure is for people of working age, who are not working but also not looking for work for any number of undetermined reasons eg being a stay-at-home parent. It does NOT include the unemployed who are actively seeking work.)
(people not in work because they're deemed too ill. While the figures for economic inactivity take no account of receipt of benefits, it's likely that most of these people are included in the inactivity total)
Of these, approximately 1 million are said by both Labour and the Tories to actually be fit for work. All existing recipients of Incapacity Benefit, and all new claimants of its replacement Employment Support Allowance, are currently being subjected to vigorous re-testing rules designed to get them off incapacity benefits and onto JSA wherever possible. (As JSA pays significantly less money.)
So sorting through that lot, what we find is that there are somewhere in the region of 3.5 million people in the UK who are currently out of a job and expected to go and find one. Which leads us conveniently to the number of jobs there actually are for them to find:
NUMBER OF AVAILABLE VACANCIES
This is another survey-based figure, and the ONS does not research which of these vacancies are full-time, but a reply I received from the Department for Work and Pensions via my local MP last year suggested that between 30 and 35% of available vacancies were part-time. Taking the midpoint of that estimate leaves us approximately 0.318 million full-time positions to divide among the 3.5 million unemployed.
Or in other words, assuming you meet all the qualifying criteria for every job, and assuming for the sake of argument that jobs and applicants are distributed evenly across the country (which of course they're not), then you've still got less than a 10% chance of finding full-time work.
(Obviously, that doesn't mean if you apply for 10 jobs you'll get one of them. It's a game of musical chairs, where there are fewer and fewer targets with every successive round and the odds get progressively worse as more vacancies are filled and additional people are made unemployed. That 9% chance is the likelihood of you EVER finding a job, not the chance of getting any specific one you apply for.)
So the unemployed, no matter how much they might WANT to work, face (at least) a 91% failure rate. Sucks, right? But apparently that's not a bleak enough prospect for our political representatives. Apparently failing to beat those odds in fact means that you're "refusing" work, and that means trouble.
Because being unlucky in Britain is about to become essentially a criminal offence. Community service is normally a punishment meted out to minor or first-offence criminals, but whether the next Prime Minister is Labour or Tory that punishment is going to be extended to the merely unfortunate who can't find work – society's new ultimate villains.