Paul Foot

Can Labour bring jobs?

(18 June 1994)

From Socialist Worker, No.1397, 18 June 1994, p.11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A FEW of the more learned political commentators have discovered a “crucial difference” between the candidates standing for the Labour Party leadership.

One candidate, John Prescott, “puts full employment at the centre of the agenda”. He wants the party to “make a commitment” to full employment, which he defines by an old 1944 standard as at least 97 percent of the workforce at work.

The other two candidates are more cautious about the figures. This should make the choice pretty easy. In all my life I have never heard a politician (or anyone else, for that matter) say that they are in favour of unemployment.

Everyone agrees that unemployment is a bad thing and should be banned. All governments would like to ban it, but it has an irritating quality of not being susceptible to bans.

Indeed there is a pattern in the politics of this century which suggests that the more anxious politicians say they are about unemployment the more it flourishes when they are in office.

This is especially true of the Labour Party. The Labour Party, since it gets its votes from the working class, has an obvious interest in preferring work and wages to dole and poverty.

In the election of 1929 every other policy was subordinated to the single specific aim of reducing unemployment. Jimmy Thomas MP, the railway union leader, was adamant that all socialistic nonsense should be rejected in favour of the practical business of getting the one million unemployed back to work.


A Labour government was elected and Thomas became Lord Privy Seal with special responsibility for the unemployed. The unemployment figures tripled in two years and Thomas, perhaps logically, joined the Tories.

John Prescott cites the post-war majority Labour government as the model of how unemployment can be wiped out. It was wiped out during that government but so it was for the next 13 years or so – under a Tory government.

The first substantial rise in unemployment after the war happened under a Labour government – in 1967. Then in 1972 unemployment reached a million under the Tories.

Labour was furious. It patented a slogan: “Back to work with Labour.” Under the Labour government which followed, unemployment soared to one and a half million.

The new Tory leader, Thatcher, became a champion of full employment. Then she got into office and we were back to four million unemployed.

The level of unemployment has never this century been set by the government. It has been set by the level of industrial activity, which in turn has been decided by the unelected people who own and control the means of production.

The “free market” has been left free to rise and fall as it suits its controllers. If government wants to insist on full employment, therefore, it must nationalise, control and interfere with the free market in a manner which John Prescott is not prepared even to contemplate.

Unless accompanied by a warning about the need to fight the priorities of capitalism all talk of a “commitment to full employment” is so much old fashioned moonshine.

P.S. If I had a vote, by the way, I would vote for John Prescott in preference to Blair and Beckett, certainly not for his worthless pledges on unemployment, but because as far as I know he’s the only candidate who’s ever been on strike and fought hard against an employer.

He will not refer to it, but I will. He was an excellent militant in his native Hull in the seamen’s strike of 1966.


Last updated on 6.2.2005