Unemployment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:08 pm on 30th October 1984.

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Photo of Mr Neil Kinnock Mr Neil Kinnock Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Labour Party, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 4:08 pm, 30th October 1984

Today we debate unemployment. It is wider than it has ever been before, for it now stands at 3,248,000. It is deeper than it has ever been before. for 369,000 people have been unemployed for more than three years, nearly 700,000 people have been unemployed for over two years, and 1,047,000 people have been unemployed for more than a year.

As the Prime Minister told the Conservative party conference, unemployment is the "scourge of our times". It is, indeed, an affliction and a plague. It is the dominant issue in the minds of the people, and we are told that it is a matter of major concern to the Government.

As we debate unemployment today, we have first to ask why the Prime Minister has chosen to absent herself from participation in the debate. We have had one response — the explanation offered by senior Ministers that custom and practice at Westminster mean that Prime Ministers involve themselves in such debates only if they are central to Government policy. With more than 3 million of our fellow citizens out of work, just what issue is more central to Government policy than unemployment? When unemployment has increased by 116,000 during the past 12 months and by more than 2 million since the Government first took office in 1979, I say that unemployment is not only central to Government policy; it is Government policy.

On previous occasions the Tory party has attracted the title of the party of unemployment. Today's Tory party is even worse—it has a Government with a policy of deliberate unemployment; the Government's record since 1979 proves that conclusively. Of course, they cannot afford to admit that. During the Tory party conference at Brighton the Prime Minister was emphatic in her commitment to the unemployed. She said about unemployment: Of course we know. Of course we see, of course we care". Yet 18 days later the right hon. Lady does not know, see or care enough to speak in an unemployment debate in the House. She merely sits there, the proud possessor of a signed copy of the 1944 White Paper on unemployment. Her lips are as tightly clipped as her handbag.

Staying out of the debate is bad enough, but for the Prime Minister to send, of all people, the Chancellor of the Exchequer to speak for the Government is much worse. We do not get the organ grinder, we do not even get the monkey—all we get is the barrel organ. I wonder which of the tunes we will hear. Will he repeat his refrain from the last debate on 31 July that the £2,000 million cost of the mining dispute, even in narrow financial terms, represented a worthwhile investment for the nation? Perhaps we will have his magnum opus from the Tory party conference — the speech that swept the whole conference into a stupor and made the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) say that he was not applauding the Chancellor but moving his hands in a gesture of despair.

We might have the Chancellor's IMF theme, when he said that many of the jobs of the future will be in labour-intensive service industries that are not so much low-tech as no-tech. His international audience must have loved that. The House can picture them — the French, Germans, Japanese and Americans, with observers from Taiwan and Korea, listening to the British Chancellor saying, "Not high-tech or low-tech, but no-tech." They would have said to themselves in a rich diversity of international languages, "What a wally."

Not high-tech or low-tech, but no-tech—that is how we are supposed to greet the new dawn; that is the future that we are to offer to our children. All our competitors are moving into new industries, but the British Chancellor wants his country to become a shoe-shine economy. He has put that proposition continually—not high-tech or low-tech, but no-tech.

On 21 October, during an interview on "Weekend World", the right hon. Gentleman made it clear that he had nothing else to offer. He said: We have always made this clear, what the Government can do to create jobs … is very, very little indeed. That was the theme that he used then, which he has used repeatedly. But have the Government really made that clear? Did the Government, who were elected on the slogan, "Labour isn't working," make it clear that they were going to do very, very little?

Last year—election year—we heard about recovery. The Chancellor was then saying on "Weekend World": There is every prospect that by next year we will see the start of a fall in the level of unemployment … My guess—best guess—is that unemployment may well start to fall next year, but that is my own opinion, and you can judge it, and take it for what it's worth. Quite so—we now know what it is worth and we know what to think of his judgment on other matters.

We know what to think of what the Chancellor said in July, that nothing was going wrong. That was a great success in comparison with the present time. He said that nothing was going wrong on the day that the pound dipped to below $1·30. I suppose that everything is relevant, as we now have a pound that is significantly lower on the international exchanges.

Only six weeks ago, the Chancellor said: Crisis? What crisis? There is no crisis. We know all about the Chancellor's judgment. I can tell him about the crisis, in the midst of the huge total of unemployment. It is the anxiety of parents, the hopelessness of children, the graduates taking temporary clerking jobs, the families being split and scattered as they search for work around the country—and all because of the level of unemployment. Yet the Chancellor said: Crisis? What crisis? There is no crisis. There is a crisis in the poverty of an unemployed man with a wife and two children living on £61·80 a week and a housing allowance for month after month and year after year. That man and his wife know the meaning of crisis. There is a crisis when careful studies show that the death rate among jobless men is 21 per cent. higher than among their contemporaries of working age. There is a crisis when the suicide rate among unemployed men is more than twice that among employed men.

Those crises can be studied, measured and attended to academically. But there are other crises directly experienced by hon. Members. A crisis is the 17-year-old boy who said to me as he was leaving a youth training scheme, "Do you think I will ever get a job, Mr. Kinnock?" That is Britain in 1984. There is a crisis for the million 18 to 24-year-olds for whom the Government make absolutely no provision for training or employment. A crisis is the 40-year-old miner's wife in my constituency —a responsible and highly respected woman, someone upon whom everyone in the village depends, a calm and decent woman — who a couple of months ago said something that I never thought to hear from her. She said, "We have got to fight, Neil, to the bitter end. If the pit goes, David" — her 42-year-old husband —"will never work again." That is a crisis.

I recognised a crisis when a 54-year-old man walked into my constituency surgery earlier this year. He was a smart, intelligent, strong man who asked me to help him obtain an urban aid grant for a youth football club that he was helping to run. He put the case intelligently and fluently and with a great deal of commitment, as one would expect. In passing, I asked him what his job was. He broke down in front of me and wept. He wept, as only a man who is not used to weeping can weep. Anyone who has ever seen it knows what crisis is.

The Prime Minister says that she sees, knows and cares. If she saw that, knew that, or cared about that she would be about the business of generating work for that man. That man of 54, that miner's wife, and millions like them, are the backbone of the nation. If those people are not given an opportunity, if they are refused help in their efforts to achieve security, the Prime Minister will be breaking the backbone of the nation. It is dreadful when she cannot give support and succour to such people, who do not want to be wrapped in cotton wool or taken by the hand. They are the cream of our people. They just want a fair chance. They feel that they are being crushed and deprived of a fair chance. Conservative Members know as well as I do that the consequences can be horrific, and the costs appalling, if those people feel forsaken.

Of course, it can be said that one relates such stories and puts forward such arguments emotionally, and that it is wrong to argue from the particular to the general. I argue from emotion, but I argue from reason too. If those people feel neglected, left out and abandoned, the effect on the fabric of our society, as everyone here must know and as some Conservative Members have said, will be truly terrible. It is only reasonable to put those matters, but there is emotion as well. The House should not be embarrassed by emotion. The House of Commons is not a laboratory for clinical examination; it is the forum of this democracy. We must be analytical in our assessment of policy. We can afford to be forensic in our exchanges, yes, but in addition we must be the advocates of the people.

We must be the authentic voice of the people. That voice, against the background of unemployment, the reduction of industries and the affliction of communities, is saying to us all here, regardless of party, "We want to work. Help us so to do. You have the power. Give us the means to work."

Even if their demand is ignored, those people will not erupt with resentment. Those are not the people who will be taking to the streets. That is not their tradition or their temperament and that fact alone about the British people should attract the Government's commitment. Instead, that reasonableness and moderation receive the Government's scornful complacency. The Government show contempt for the millions of individual crises, just a few of which I have reported to the House this afternoon, and which must be familiar to almost every Member in his constituency.