The real value of jobs is in distributing wealth around society, not in providing a fig-leaf for the same business elite which trashed the economy. Low-pay, part-time, insecure jobs are nothing to celebrate and politicians should not get away with it.
The academically worded way to put it is that words do not have inherent meaning but ‘signify’ certain things depending on usage, understanding and context. A less academic way to think about it is to realise that if the man in the shop asks you if you want a poke, it is to be hoped that you both realise he means a paper bag. Words are just ways of seeking to convey an idea of some sort or another; they don’t necessarily mean one unchanging thing.
Such is the basis of manipulating and managing public understanding. I watched an iPlayer documentary last night explaining just how important it was in the translation of the King James Bible that the translation of one Hebrew word was taken as ‘Church’ (i.e. the organised power of the religious elite) and not ‘congregation’ (i.e. the group of ordinary people who came together to make up the religious community). That one act of translation played an important part in securing the long-term position of the Anglican Church. How we define words matters.
And so again we hear the word ‘jobs’ echoing through Scottish politics with relentless assurance. But what does it mean? Or more accurately, what does it signify? A bit over a year ago the Scottish Left Review published an issue we called ‘Agenda 15’. This was a policy agenda which it would have been possible to implement by whomever won the 2011 election by the time of (what we then thought) would be the next election. (Of course, now it should be called ‘Agenda 16’.) In it we tried to redefine the economic debate by trying to shift the emphasis away from ‘growth’ and on to ‘jobs’. This had an explicit, specific meaning. What we meant by this was that the assumption that neoliberal economics was the way to deliver ‘jobs’ through crude trickle-down theory was the wrong way round to see things. In fact, we needed to look at jobs as the focus – it is the experience of creating prosperity for people which is the goal of economics, not abstract GDP figures. Our argument was that seeing national wealth in terms of the jobs of many people rather than the personal wealth of a few people was an easy-to-understand way of transforming the debate. Does a given policy directly create good jobs for real people? If not, it is a bad policy, even if someone might get very rich out of it. The signifier we were trying to attach to jobs is that they are an important means of ‘economic redistribution’ – jobs are a crucial mechanism for sharing the wealth of society evenly.
It would be daft to imply that this initiative by the Scottish Left Review changed the content of debate, but nevertheless it came out at a time when everyone discovered the heart-rending importance of jobs. It became a word with a different signifier. Suddenly the word ‘jobs’ became an almost magical way of saying ‘we feel your pain, we’re like you, we understand you’. All parties used it over and over, but none more so that Iain Gray who in one not-very-memorable party leader debate moment decided that he would like the title of his autobiography to be ‘Jobs, Jobs. Jobs’. Oh dear, what a terrible title for a book. Still though, what we got was a shift in the way the word was being used. But – crucially – without any obvious content. It brought no policy change – ‘jobs’ were still about ‘apprenticeships’ (quite how everyone fell for the idea that training was the route to create jobs rather than a means of getting people ready to fill them is a mystery) and ‘lending to small businesses’ and so on.
In fact, my biggest irritation with the constitutional debate at the moment is when people say either ‘the independence debate is distracting from the important task of creating jobs’ or ‘independence is the way to create jobs’. In both cases I want to scream out one simple question – how? What is it that Labour Ministers would be doing to create ‘jobs’ that isn’t getting done because of the constitutional debate? And how is the SNP’s vision for independence actually going to result in more jobs? And, at the risk of appearing to demonstrate a bias, at least one can think of an answer to the latter question. I have heard not a peep about what we need to be doing that we’re not doing to create more jobs.
But that isn’t the end of the story. Jobs became what might be called a ‘cultural signifier’ – it was a word used to make people feel that politicians understood us and our worries. Now, however, it seems we’ve come full-circle. ‘Jobs’ seems once more to be a word which means ‘the byproduct of letting rich people do as they please’. The obvious example is the idea that Murdoch’s call centre jobs is a reason to support the BSkyB takeover – massive neoliberal monopoly strategies in crucial areas of national life justified by a thousand people working part-time for not much more than minimum wage? But it isn’t just one party -they’re all back at it. No-one seems ready to give us a policy for jobs themselves, just a policy for bosses who then promise jobs.
And here’s the problem – yesterday we found out the truth of the real story about jobs which is that they’re back to being cheap, insecure, part time and bluntly insufficient to sustain a reasonable life. The signifier of ‘jobs’ has once again become a sort-of Emporer’s Cloak for a bollock-naked neoliberal ideology which has made such a terrible mess of things. Jobs is a number we use to prove that disaster isn’t really disaster at all. Far from being a way to distribute wealth, ‘jobs’ are once again a justification for concentrating wealth.
So you open the paper and hear that we’re all working two crap jobs to try and keep up with the electricity bills. Then the next day someone tells us that an increase in aggregate jobs is evidence of recovery. It’s not. It’s a con. What counts is not number but number-at-acceptable-quality. Jobs as a means of sustaining society, not sustaining a small part of it at the top.
It may not be an easy battle, but the left should focus on this. It is our jobs to alter this signifier, to make jobs mean redistribution. Otherwise it will be a Poundland economy for us and a Harvey Nichols economy for them