It’s impossible to imagine now how endemic youth unemployment was between 1979 and 1983. In the Toxteth area of Liverpool, about 90% of the youth had no work. One survey in London estimated that 26% of young unemployed had contemplated suicide.
After 1979, there was a calamitous rise in unemployment – especially among the youth. In northern cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle – a kind of dole culture took hold. You could be forgiven for thinking that not having a job was the norm while being in work was some kind of privilege.
Local authorities and trade unions funded unemployment centres. I recall the centre in Liverpool on Hardman Street with a pub attached at the back called The Flying Picket where you might bump into Alexei Sayle at the bar on some nights.
Some of these centres produced cheap newspapers for and by the unemployed. They would normally reflect the opinions of the dominant political group within the centre – often on the ultra-left.
Here are some examples – note the attack on the TUC for not doing enough for the unemployed. A common theme at the time was that the Labour Party and trade union leadership were sadly wanting in the face of the Thatcherite onslaught.
Paul Mooney popped the question to his girlfriend Terese Shortt when both of them – members of the Unemployed Workers Association – were going to lobby Thatcher on the Jobs Express. This was a train loaded with the unemployed that descended on the capital in late 1981.
The pair got a card from Tony Benn MP and Terese was selected with five others, out of the 400 protestors, to go and meet Thatcher and plead their case.
The 1981 March for Jobs was hugely well attended with jobless walking for miles to London to make their point to Maggie. One of those on the dole and facing a bleak future was the former Mayor of Watford, Alan Bonney, who found himself at the age of 40 unable to get into the labour market. Furious, he joined the march and the Daily Star showed him at his political height and subsequent grim position in life.
County Hall on the South Bank in London is now a hotel, aquarium, some kind of horror show, a Japanese restaurant and a McDonalds – oh, and a ticket office for the London Eye. It was once the city hall for London – where the Greater London Council (GLC) was based.
Back in the early 1980s, the GLC was led by a much younger Ken Livingstone. He used to plaster the current unemployment figure across the top of the building. As it pretty much faced on to the Houses of Parliament, on the river bank opposite, Margaret Thatcher couldn’t exactly miss it.
But Thatcher got her revenge – by abolishing the GLC.
There was a dark humour among the unemployed under Thatcher – many knowing they would never, in all likelihood, work again. These were people thrown out of manufacturing jobs and facing a labour market that was unforgiving if you over 35 – let alone unwilling to up sticks.
Graduates couldn’t even find summer jobs in the early 80s as the unemployed competed for shop and bar work. Dole newspapers sprang up all over the north, Midlands and London. This one developed a game for the jobless called Monotony – a skit on Monopoly.
Young people are on the dole all over Europe once more – 50% of young people in Spain without jobs. It’s all a horrible echo of the 1979-81 economic downturn in the UK during the first term of the Margaret Thatcher government. I was at university in Liverpool from 1981 to 1984 and jobs were things that very lucky people had in that city. Disused factories and warehouses were everywhere.
So bad was the situation that a bleak humour arose – evidenced by this front cover of the satirical magazine Private Eye in 1980. Here we have arch-Thatcherite Keith Joseph saying it’s not so bad – he’s spotted at least one job.