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New Left Review I/137, January-February 1983

Michael Rustin

A Statutory Right to Work

It was widely believed after the Second World War in Britain that the ‘right to work’ had been generally won; the greatest economic evil of the prewar years seemed to have been overcome through reforms. [*] I would like to thank Robin Blackburn and Peter Howells for their encouragement and advice. Yet now, again, unemployment has returned in a seemingly permanent form and there appears to be neither the understanding nor the will to confront the problem effectively. Among professional economists, there has been an influential revival of pre-Keynesian, neo-classical perspectives which have sought to reconceptualize unemployment as ‘voluntary’ and as the product of rigidities in the labour market and of disincentives to work created by the welfare system. [1] J. Shackleton’s article, ‘Economists and Unemployment’, in the National Westminster Bank Quarterly Review (February 1982), helpfully reviews this literature. There is a fuller symposium on these questions in Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol (eds), The Crisis in Economic Theory, New York 1981. This position has provided the theoretical basis for the Thatcher and Reagan programmes, which are premissed on the belief that the Keynesian arrangements of the postwar period, far from abolishing unemployment as was thought, in fact had merely caused inflation and made worse the recession that has ‘inevitably’ followed it. Nor has the problem of unemployment yet had the priority that one might have expected from economists of the left. [2] Important exceptions are the Community Development Project members who did pioneering work on inner-city economic decline, and the economic advisory groups now working for some Labour municipal authorities (London and Sheffield, for instance) on the same problems.

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