Unemployment in Plymouth has risen considerably since the start of the pandemic, and looks set to rise further as the jobs crisis bits. This could take Plymouth to levels of unemployment not previously experienced since the 1980s. Luke was a young boy in the 80s, and so he invited Plymouth political giants, past and present, to participate in a panel session to discuss what unemployment looked like in Plymouth in the eighties, how the government responded, and what we can learn from the experience.
The panel included Linda Gilroy who represented Plymouth Sutton as our MP from 1997 to 2010; Lord David Owen, the MP for Plymouth Sutton and then Plymouth Devonport from the 1960s to the early 1990s – he is known to many as one of the founding members of the SDP; Councillor Pete Smith who was a trade union rep in the dockyard during the 80s and is now Deputy Leader of the Council; and Councillor Sue Dann who is a cabinet member for the city council.
Lord David Owen reflected on the indifference of the Tory government in the eighties; he said Thatcher and Howe believed creating unemployment was necessary and were unapologetic about it. The current government’s apathy and dismissal of ‘unviable’ jobs, such as those in the arts and creative sector, is an interesting parallel, he noted. To combat this, Lord Owen discussed the way MPs got together to argue for investment in the A38, slowly encouraging industry to relocate to Plymouth. Similarly, Lord Owen wants to encourage Plymouth University, which he calls ‘first class’, to continue to create jobs and opportunities in Plymouth.
Linda discussed what unemployment in Plymouth looked like when she was going door to door as a candidate. She recalled canvassing in Stonehouse where unemployment was high: 50% of men and a third of young people were out of work and most households had or at least knew someone who was unemployed. She predicts that the structural unemployment we saw then, through the privatisation of the dockyard and selling off utilities, is likely to be replicated now through mass redundancies in retail and on the high street. She thinks that the best thing to do is to focus on training and to join up all the dots, the most important and best placed of which is the local council.
This view was reflected by Pete and Sue – both current council members – who touched on the subject of making Plymouth as attractive as possible and the importance of encouraging and training people in highly skilled jobs. This will raise the aspirations and opportunities of young people in Plymouth so that they are willing to invest their time, and companies their money, into getting them into employment.
“It is important to remember that mass unemployment is not just a set of numbers. Each number is a real person with bills to pay and, often, families to support. I am very concerned about rising unemployment and I want to do all I can to avoid anything similar happening in Plymouth after the end of the furlough scheme.
“We all agreed on the importance of local councils taking leading roles and so I want to see the Government giving Plymouth its fair share of funding so our amazing council can carry on doing the great work they have been doing the past year and bring in more initiatives to encourage employment, especially among young people, in the city.
There is a recognition that something needs to be done, but a disjoint between that and the resources and funding they have given us to actually do it. I want to see real training programs and a coherent plan to get people back into work. I also want to see the government retract their dismissal of arts and cultural sector jobs. The people of Plymouth love our art and events, which are genuinely nationally important, and they need to be sustained and supported if we want those jobs, and the culture that comes with them, to stay.”