Unemployment in the UK

Part of Opposition Day — [18th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 8:53 pm on 7th October 2008.

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Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Labour, Livingston 8:53 pm, 7th October 2008

I once had the great privilege of working for a very clever psychiatrist, who told me never to listen to what anybody says, but always to watch behaviour. I want to deal with the behaviour of the Conservatives when they were in power.

Like other hon. Members, I congratulate the Conservatives on having the audacity to call a debate on unemployment, particularly this week, which has seen the anniversary, on 5 October, of the Jarrow march, when 200 men walked from Jarrow for 22 days. They collected 12,000 signatures to a petition, which was unprecedented, to campaign about unemployment. The anniversary was this week.

I want to talk about my personal experiences of unemployment from when the Conservative party was in power. I am a 55-year-old—I know that I look a lot younger—and I had friends who left school in the late '60s and early '70s. I had not one friend who left school who did not have a job. People left at 15 and went into labouring. Others left at 16 and went into apprenticeships. People such as myself left at 17 or 18 and went into further education. I remember this as a rite of passage. We left school and were part of society. We felt that we had status and standing, and we received a pay packet or a loan. There was something very special about it. It was our contribution to society, and it was about saying that we had a role in society.

In fairness to the Conservatives, every Government, Tory or Labour, since the late '20s and early '30s have been committed to full employment. As Harold Wilson once said, the Labour party is a campaign against poverty, or it is nothing. Tory MPs from Macmillan through to Ted Heath were committed to full employment, but that changed under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. It is naive for the Conservatives to pretend that they have changed, because many of them are still part of the No Turning Back group. They still believe in the basic Thatcherite philosophies that we had to suffer in the working class communities in the late '70s and early '80s. We had a Thatcherite Government who were prepared to indulge in a financial experiment that had an impact on individuals, their families and their communities.

Unemployment in parts of my constituency rose to 26 per cent. all the way through that time. I have seen the lump in operation—it was something that my granddad had told me about. For those who do not know, when the Tories were in power, men—there could be up to 25 of them—had to assemble at a pre-determined place and a builder would come along and pick five of them. He would take them away to a building site for a day, without any training, health and safety or access to a trade union. At the end of the 12-hour day, he would put £10 in their hands. This is what happened. Those unemployed men then had to go through exactly the same process the following day. It was demeaning and humiliating, and it was meant to be.

The film "The Full Monty" brilliantly characterised what was happening in working class communities at the time. The leading character, played by Robert Carlyle, was a man who had to steal lead so that he could take his child to the football on a Saturday. Then there was the manager who left his house every single day at the same time, dressed for work and carrying his briefcase, because he was too ashamed to tell his wife that he had been made redundant. A third character was a man who could not perform in the bedroom because the Tories were not allowing him to perform in the workplace. His dignity and his status had been taken away from him. The fourth senior character in the film was a man who tried to kill himself, because that was the logic of Thatcher's view that "there is no alternative". He took that logic to its natural conclusion. If that was what life was like on the dole, with no status, no standing and no ability to provide for his family, he did not want anything to do with it.

I worked as part of a primary care psychiatric team in my constituency. I watched patients coming to the health centre and being prescribed anti-depressants and Valium. If they had been prescribed a job, they would not have had to go anywhere near that health centre.

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