Sometime in the early 90's I was unemployed for over six months, along with millions of others. The government of the time benevolently decided to help us by delivering us into the hands of ActionFutureWorkPlan, a right bunch of contractors paid a lot of taxpayers money to make the unemployed go away. I wrote this at the time. I've corrected most of the spelling.
“Right” said Annette, our Actionfutureworkplan leader. “What are your hobbies? What do you really like to do?” It was 10 o’clock on the first morning of the Actionfutureworkplanweek and already we knew our names. Now we were going to find out what we enjoyed. At this rate we’d all be brain surgeons by Thursday. This week wasn’t going to be quite as strenuous as I’d feared. Nobody resented the question, they merely resented being there. “Let’s get one thing clear,” Annette had said earlier, “you’re all here voluntarily. Yes? You all had a choice.” ...“Yeah, Hobson’s Choice” someone said. The truth was that we’d all been told ‘Be there or lose your benefit.’ Annette passed round a form. It told her our skills, where we used them, and any experience which would help us get work. We talked about the ‘Hurdles and Barriers’ to getting work. We talked about the pluses and minuses of being out of work and in work. All of us had been out of work for more than a year, most for longer, some much longer. In the middle of a fractured discussion about age discrimination, we discovered that the average age of the group was about 35. Two people were under 30. There were 12 men and 3 women.
The discussion rambled from one point to another. As a chairperson, Annette was not a great success. After 20 minutes talking about motivation and how to hold the attention of a potential employer she was losing our attention and we were more discouraged than ever. Conversations were breaking out on every table corner. While she was stressing the importance of training I realised that she had no training in how to run a group discussion. It was obvious to everyone. In the tea break, the large handsome Jamaican said “I’ve got a terrific idea. Instead of looking for work again, let’s never look for work again.” After one morning of the Actionfutureworkplan we all knew what he meant.
This, according to Annette, was our ‘Digdeepday.’ There was a silent groan, something I had never come across before. We started to examine our hopes and aspirations. Among the group were an ex-lorry driver, an ex-forestry worker who couldn’t speak English and had to be informed what an aspiration was, an ex-secretary, an ex-shelf-filler, and an ex-labourer. All 35 or over, and all of whom had taken twenty minutes to fill in a simple form. This was therefore the most depressing part of the week. Asking someone in that situation about their ‘aspirations’ became tantamount to saying 'Your life is absolutely meaningless and pathetic.' Some simply didn’t know what they wanted to do, and were being forced to say so in open court. They just wanted a job. In fact, they didn't want anything, they just didn't want to be un-employed. The double negative at the heart of capitalism.
It was not a pretty sight. And when the ex-businessman (greatest fault “too trusting”) made his contribution: “Some people just want to sit on their arses in front of the telly. They don’t deserve help” it took a swift change of tack to avoid real trouble. Maybe we’d dug a little too deep. Annette decided we could take an early lunch.
Lunch, promptly dubbed the 'Babylon Sandwich', was never the highlight of the day. It wasn’t Spam, but ten years ago it would have been. Processed White and cheese or soggy lettuce or ‘seafood’ which tasted like
Margate beach only pink. Afterwards we roamed the lovely streets of North-Nunhead for an hour and a half and smoked. So this was what work was like. We could get used to this. In fact we were used to this. It was no different to being unemployed for a year - and all in one week. The afternoon brought us Ron from the Quick Hands Agency, who organise ‘training courses designed to provide skills tailored to the demands of today’s high-tech marketplace.’
These turned out to be: a two day first aid course, two weeks of Child Care and Baby Maintenance, and How to be a Security Guard. So we could learn how to change nappies and wear a shiny hat with confidence. There was general disgust and outrage. Our faith in the Actionfutureworkplan was completely dead. Every day after lunch, Annette’s sidekick Beverly would take over. If anything, she was even less accomplished than Annette. In fact, after the farce of Tuesday afternoon, the ‘course’ had run out of steam. “What do you want to do tomorrow?” Beverly had asked. Out of the embarrassed silence came the noise: “Mumble mumble. Interviews? Mumble.” So interviews it was.
Beverly entered with a video cassette. “Anyone know how to work this thing?”. The woman did not know how to operate a VHS. Two people simply got up and left the room. The Smart Alec Troublemaker confronted her with the inconsistency of her not being able to show us a training video because she wasn’t trained to operate a VHS. “Not me. It’s not my job. No way.” Mere disillusionment was rapidly turning to mass incredulity.
With professional supervision and direction, and a lot of editing, the video could probably have been of some use. But there was none. We drifted in and out, discussed hot lottery numbers, and made cups of institutional tea. One or two did ‘heads on desks’, which brought back memories.
Things got more bizarre. Nimbly evading the pros and cons of successful interview technique, someone suggested we “Do a building society. HO-HO.” We plotted the heist in some detail for the next half hour, with Beverly leading the discussion. “But what about the security cameras? Aren’t they connected to the police station?” got pitying looks from around the room. This woman obviously knew nothing. It finally dawned on her that this particular small business idea was not exactly within her brief, and she ended the heist plan and the day with her favourite line: “What do you want to do tomorrow?” The trouble was, someone had an idea. “I’ve got a video.” he said. “It’s sort of about how to set up in business..... It’s a movie.... By the guy that did ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’....'Hobson’s Choice’.” The joke was completely lost on Beverly, but not on the group, who laughed like drains. But it wasn’t a joke. We watched it the next day, complete with Charles Laughton, John Mills and “Ee by gum!” - without any guidance, preamble or review, naturally - but at least it was a recognisable way of passing the time. In fact, it did prompt a detailed discussion about ‘capital’, and there was some pun fun on the virtues of boot sales. It was a start, but it had come too late. During one of these supervision-free afternoons we speculated about the future.
“We’re surrounded by supermarkets. In six months we’ll all be stacking shelves. And not for pay - for benefit.” This was frightening to hear, even if it was bollocks.
“Nah, how they going to do that? They can’t make you.”
“They made you come here didn’t they?”
“No-one takes away my money. They do that they gonna have big trouble. We torch that Job Centre to ashes. They can put me inside. When I come out I’ll be a hero.”
That may have been bollocks too, but it was bollocks born out of bitter resentment and frustration. This was someone with nothing to lose: for whom prison was no deterrent because liberty was no better. At least it was someone who had discovered what they’d ‘really like to do’.
And so the farcical week dragged on. Running the gamut from insulting to bizarre. To be fair, some did benefit from the week. Dave the lorry driver got a job driving a van. Marcos the ex-plasterer was last seen grimly swapping notes about his driving licence points in preparation for an interview for driving a bus. But these were the result of the fabled ‘one-to-one’ sessions with Annette, and could have been provided six months earlier by the Job Centre. During my ‘one-to-one’ it became obvious that no-one in the building had the first idea about operating a computer, and I offered my help with the basics. “Thanks, but no thanks.” said Annette, touching my knee. What did she mean? I escaped flattered but confused.
I returned un-helped to the main room, into the middle of a discussion about prospects. Someone was loudly stressing the importance of “not seeing the world through rose-coloured scepticals.” It seemed the perfect strategy to me.
This was a story from the Major administration. Spiteful and stupid though they were, they never stooped to the depths of Cameron and Clegg. And so escaped major collective punishment - more by luck and sleaze than any humanity. The Condem Alliance has learned neither honesty nor humanity. What hope for them when the British people get teachy?