The NUWM’s purpose was ‘work or maintenance’ based on the notion of universal social citizenship. The 1932 ‘Means Test Crisis’ provided the NUWM with a good opportunity to press hard the State for a non-contributory, non-means-tested, and State-finan ...
The NUWM’s purpose was ‘work or maintenance’ based on the notion of universal social citizenship. The 1932 ‘Means Test Crisis’ provided the NUWM with a good opportunity to press hard the State for a non-contributory, non-means-tested, and State-financed insurance system based on such a notion of citizenship. However, as the government promised a higher level of unemployment relief within the existing dual unemployment insurance-assistance system based on the idea of selective social citizenship, the NUWM retreated. One reason for this phenomenon was that while national leaders of the NUWM was connected with the CPGB and thus revolutionary, its rank and file members were largely non-ideological and non-political. Thus, the motto of ‘work or maintenance’ the NUWM strongly demanded during the crisis did not really mean so much universal social citizenship which was socialistic in nature as improvement of unemployed workers’ living condition within the existing social system by way of higher rates of unemployment relief and bigger chances for new employment. Discourses and activities of the NUWM did not exactly correspond to each other.
Another important reason was the failure of the NUWM in acquiring the support of the mainstream of the Labour movement. Throughout the interwar period, the Labour Party and the TUC committed ideologically to democratic socialism, which operated within the limits of capitalism and parliamentary democracy, and hence basically accepted the existing dual unemployment insurance-assistance system. Thus, due to the militancy of the NUWM and its leaders’ well-known Communist allegiance, Labour leaders refused any alliance or cooperation with the NUWM, considering it a Communist front.
Under the UAB system, the UAB officers appointed by the central government took over the administration of the means-tested unemployment assistance payments from the locally elected PAC officers. Due to this change, the NUWM and other unemployed workers lost their power of ‘democratic control’―the means of accessing and influencing the Local Authorities in determining the amount of assistance. The 1935 ‘UAB crisis’ furnished the NUWM with a good opportunity to resist the State against this change. Nevertheless, what the NUWM most fiercely opposed was the reduction in assistance payments rather than the loss of the ‘democratic control.’ When the government promised more generous assistance payments, the NUWM retreated quickly.
One reason for this phenomenon was that leaders of the NUWM, though defining the capitalist State as its greatest enemy, did not clearly define how to treat the central government and the Local Authorities. Moreover, they did not realize the importance of the loss of the ‘democratic control’ itself. Some of them even thought that the UAB system, having the unemployed claim a greater amount of assistance, would undermine the financial stability of the capitalist State, promoting its collapse.
Another reason was that for the rank and file members of the NUWM, the notion of universal social citizenship contained in the motto of ‘work or maintenance’ was social democratic rather than socialistic, meaning improvement of their living condition by a more active state intervention within the existing social system. Thus, when the State enlarged its role in unemployment relief through the UAB system and then guaranteed more assistance payments through the Standstill Act, they accepted the UAB system without caring much about the loss of their power of the ‘democratic control.’
In addition, this result derived also from three more factors: the repeated failure of the NUWM in making an alliance with Labour and the TUC, a relatively higher level of benefit/assistance after the crisis which was frequently equal or exceeded the local wage rates, and the domestic economic conditions which began to improve from the autumn of 1932.