December 8, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Misery of unemployment in the 1980s

2 min read
As mass unemployment returns after Covid, Tony McMahon looks back at unemployment in the 1980s which scaled horrific heights

Updating this post in July 2020, I’m now looking at history repeating on mass unemployment. Seemingly every day, the TV news bulletins announce the latest redundancies from the likes of John Lewis or British Airways. I’m experiencing a huge sense of deja-vu with the sudden rise in joblessness in the early 1980s.

With a focus on getting inflation down, which rose to 18% or more in 1980, Margaret Thatcher adopted what was called a ‘monetarist’ economic policy. Interest rates were raised, sterling rose in value and that turned a downturn into a precipitous collapse for manufacturing industry.

The early 1980s saw unemployment sweep across the north and Midlands in particular but also in other parts of the country. The huge nationalised industries were cut down in size with massive layoffs in the energy, steel and mining industries as well as the docks.

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 in the 1980s 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 above – 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.

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