THE similarity between the words “perceive” and “deceive”, both from Latin by way of French, illustrates the importance of prefixes: “de” usually means “down from” or “away from” or signifies reversal, though, annoyingly, it’s sometimes just an intensifier. In Latin-based words “per” tends to mean “through”, “beyond” or “thoroughly” and, just as annoyingly, sometimes indicates destruction.

But, as Buttercup pointed out in HMS Pinafore, “things are seldom what they seem”. Our perceptions are often deceptive. Take, for example, the poster voted the greatest of the 20th Century: the Tory party’s 1978 billboard that proclaimed “Labour isn’t working”. When it came out, unemployment was at a relatively high level by the standards of the post-war period, at about 5.5 per cent.

Voters promptly ticked the box marked Conservative. Saatchi & Saatchi, which came up with the line, became the foremost representatives of an industry that was almost the embodiment of one view of Thatcherism. And unemployment, which on another view was the defining aspect of the political climate of the early 1980s, climbed to its highest-ever level, at nearly 12 per cent.

You can argue – people do still argue, vigorously – about the policies pursued by Jim Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher’s governments, but the fact remains that one party won an election with a point scored at the expense of another, then produced exactly the thing it had complained about them doing, with knobs on. Plus ça change.

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The snaking dole queue on the Saatchis’ billboard wasn’t even the unemployed, but members of Hendon Young Conservatives, or rather, 20 of them. The finished poster was created by photographing them several times and stitching the images together.

Counting the workforce or the unemployed inaccurately, or more than once, or people not being in the category you want to identify is a perpetual difficulty. The current figures from the Office for National Statistics, despite the pandemic, are similar to those for most of the 1970s, at around five per cent UK unemployment, but political priorities are focused in exactly the opposite direction: a shortage of labour.

There are almost one million job vacancies in the UK at the moment, and those numbers specifically exclude agriculture, forestry and fisheries – even though there’s been the difficulty of attracting workers to bring in the crops. At the same time, there’s been justifiable concern about shortages in shops, even if they are not at the apocalyptic levels the coverage has tended to suggest.

The glee with which lots of the usual suspects are moaning about these twin problems is, naturally, because they see them as evidence of the evils of the favourite targets of their disapproval: Brexit and “late stage capitalism”.

The latter (how they know it is in its late stages escapes me) is always about to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. In this, it’s unlike socialism, which actually has collapsed or proved tyrannical in every one of the dozens of countries that tried it. But that doesn’t count, because it wasn’t real socialism. The wickedness of racist, right-wing Brexit, naturally, isn’t even up for discussion.

But while the current snags in the labour market expose real problems with both those things, they’re not necessarily the ones the left would like them to be. The shortage of people to do low-paid, labour-intensive work is rather a vindication of the claim made by pro-Brexit advocates (usually from the left) that the ready supply of EU migrant labour was artificially suppressing wages.

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That was widely pooh-poohed by Remainers, but the evidence is strong that while free movement had a minimal overall effect on earnings, it had quite a high one if you look at low-paid work in particular.

It’s reasonable to ask why the market doesn’t just sort this out, by paying more for in-demand jobs. And in fact it does – to the disapproval of those same critics, who have been complaining this week that people are leaving social care work to take jobs at Amazon and the like. The problem isn’t with the market, but the ways in which it has been distorted – almost all of them the fault of government regulation and welfare payments.

These, while well-intentioned, have had the perverse effect of doing relatively little to help the working poor – most benefit recipients work – but quite a lot to subsidise large rich firms, such as supermarkets, tech firms and, in particular, the rentier class.

These people may be rich, but they’re anti-market. In effect, the taxpayer is giving the likes of Tesco money to allow them to underpay workers, who are some of those same taxpayers. And while government impedes new housebuilding with planning regulations and simultaneously, as a consequence, has to fork out housing benefit, the same goes for private landlords.

While the figures show that the position of the lowest-paid appears to have improved (since the introduction of the minimum wage), huge housing and travel costs, especially in major cities, often make them worse off. The UK minimum wage has risen faster and is set higher than almost anywhere except New Zealand. That has not been the disaster many (including me) feared, but it still has the problem of effectively setting a maximum wage that doesn’t reflect real costs or circumstances.

Brexit has certainly played a role in supply problems, but it’s because we ditched a pro-market bit of the EU (free movement) without creating instead a more business-friendly regulatory atmosphere (which was the ostensible point of getting out of the red tape from Brussels). There are shortages in American and European shops at the moment, too, so it can’t be the whole story.

Covid is an obvious element, but the UK’s main difficulty is that we suspended driver training in an industry with a huge turnover, and that we don’t pay HGV drivers enough. And, lo and behold, the market’s response has been to introduce £5,000 signing bonuses and salaries of up to £50,000.

Underemployment may be superficially less alarming than unemployment, but it has comparable hazards, and their remedy is more, not less, in the way of market solutions. The UK government should stop hammering the low-paid with NI rises and fees for permits and licences, and reform welfare so that huge corporate monopolies have to pay the real cost of their employees. The current, skewed, over-regulated labour market isn’t working for the Tories, either.

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