What Rachel Reeves could have said

Frank Gallagher as Jesus
The shambling old parasite: capitalism

Adopting a firm party line on welfare, the former Bank of England economist stressed that a key part of her task would be to explode the “myth” that Labour is soft on benefit costs, and to prove instead that it will be both tough and fair.

In an Observer interview, Rachel Reeves MP has said a number of things about social security, some of which seem fair enough, but of course she’s given the Guardian the headline:

Labour will be tougher than Tories on benefits

Which is a shibboleth designed to both appeal to Daily Mail readers and enrage anyone with an actual soul. Why this interview wasn’t in the Mail itself is clear: you can imagine a Thick of It style conversation, in which she was told it might be “too soon” after the Ralph Miliband controversy to be giving succour to the fascists Daily Mail readership.

The policy of forcing people into work with a “guaranteed job offer” is clearly not meant to appeal to actual unemployed people. As with all such schemes, one wonders, if there’s a job to be offered, why it isn’t offered at the beginning of a period of unemployment. Being out of work for a whole year (two years if you’re over 25) is a soul-destroying and humiliating experience. If there are jobs, give people jobs. Don’t punish people first with unemployment, and don’t therefore treat the idea of a “guaranteed job” as a punishment.

“If you’re unemployed for two years, we will punish you by giving you a job.”

What she could have said is that it’s capitalism that creates unemployment. Capitalism requires there to be a pool of unemployed people in order to keep wages low. Tackle the scandal of low pay and you tackle unemployment. How do you tackle low pay? Reeves actually has some suggestions: a living wage for all government procurement contracts is one. Why wasn’t that the headline? Because it’s not a Daily Mail shibboleth. Why is the Guardian printing Mail-like headlines? Well, this is the “there is no father Christmas” moment for left-wingers: the Graun is in the business of link bait just as much as the Mail. Eyeballs on advertisements is what the Graun is after. Even left wing eyeballs.

Taking a wider view, as the Guardian’s own figures show, Jobseeker’s allowance is only 3% of the social security budget. For so much of our national conversation to be focused on such a relatively small amount of money is a sign that we’re not really talking about the money. Instead, we’re in curtain-twitching territory. We’re pointing fingers at people who don’t work. Even worse, we’re pointing fingers at the small number of people who are out of work for a couple of years. As someone who was once unemployed for 18 months – and who spent that time applying for many, many jobs for which I was eminently qualified – this kind of thing gives me the rage.

The conversation should be about the undeserving rich. Inherited wealth. Tax avoidance. Excessive profits. Price gouging. Obscene executive pay. Enormous, undeserved bonuses. Bonuses for people whose job is mainly done by computer algorithms.

And in the end, so what? So what if there are people who are work shy? They’re a tiny minority. What is this connection between morality and work? What if you don’t want to work for the machine? What if you want to opt out? This society is rich enough and should be big enough and wise enough to make space for people who want to opt out. For musicians and artists who want to pursue that dream, even if it means signing on for seven years. For people who, like Bartelby, would prefer not to.

People shouldn’t be punished for not wanting to participate, and the children of the long-term unemployed certainly should not be punished.

And, you know what? Frank Gallagher in Shameless was not a symbol of the feckless poor. Yes, he’s a shambling old wreck, a creeping, grasping, addled parasite: the living embodiment of capitalism itself.

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