Labour's jobs guarantee for the long-term unemployed is a partial break from the orthodoxy. It is a break in that by placing the government as the employment guarantor of last resort it implicitly recognises that the hidden hand of the market is structurally incapable of providing jobs for all. But it is only partial because the nature of the jobs offered are, well, not really jobs.
Take this piece on the Prospect blog by Spencer Thompson of IPPR, for example. Spencer makes the very sensible point that the government's current 'wage incentive' scheme (whereby the wages of new hires are part-subsidised by the tax payer to encourage job creation) is hardly making inroads to the long-term young unemployed as the most "employable" - i.e. the best educated - are far more likely to be taken on than your veteran NEET. In fact, as this layer are the least likely to spend prolonged periods on the dole it is smoothing the passage back to work for those who were already best placed.
we should adopt a job guarantee for young people, with an offer of work experience to all those out of work and on jobseeker’s allowance for a year or more. It should be paid at the minimum wage in order to allay the justified concern with earlier “workfare” schemes. But it should also be combined with sanctions, with an obligation on the young person to take up the offer or find an alternative. This would have an immediate impact on youth unemployment in the UK, as well as providing much-needed labour market experience for many of the hardest to reach unemployed.When is a jobs guarantee not a jobs guarantee? When all that is on offer is work experience. The implicit assumption underlining Spencer's argument is that long term unemployment stems from job market unsuitability. Therefore what is required is to get the NEETS and others into minimum wage schemes under pain of sanction that can train them up to the kinds of worker employers might want to employ. Hence it is envisaged very much as a temporary patch. Nowhere is there any realisation that jobs are in very short supply, and that training up loads of unemployed young people will not in and of itself ameliorate that situation (apart from the multiplier effects of hundreds of thousands on such schemes having more cash in their pockets).
Why do I suspect this or something very similar will not be a million miles away from Labour's scheme? Because Ed Balls in his announcement said "Our Jobs Guarantee for adults will build on the model of the Future Jobs Fund with government working with the private and voluntary sectors to ensure there is a job paying the minimum wage for every long-term unemployed person." Tax-payer subsidised profits for Tesco? No thanks. An army of economic conscripts that will undermine the wages and conditions of current workers? Not a great idea. I'm sorry, but this is not good enough. While there is much flesh to be put on the bone, the preview offered is tepid and will compound the insecurity many workers at the low wage end of the labour market already feel. Tried and tested is the jolly old public works programmes - what's wrong with that? Or why not be more ambitious and organise 'jobs guarantee' workers into state/local authority-owned businesses or cooperatives to address identified developmental needs? Or something else the weird and wonkyful could dream up? Perhaps, just perhaps, the jobs guarantee might like to draw on the experience of trade unions to advise, lead and deliver such schemes. After all, they're only the democratic representatives of working people.
The principle of a jobs guarantee is a good thing. It is a marker of the increasing differences between Labour and its opponents, and signals a further step away from neoliberalism's policy straitjacket. But it has to be worthwhile. It has to train people, give them something useful to do, restore a sense of self-respect and *not* undermine the existing workforce. It requires a real leap of political imagination as well as a not inconsiderable amount of courage. Is the labour movement up to it?