Author Laurent Bernhard introduces the recent title Debating Unemployment Policy: Political Communication and the Labour Market in Western Europe.

In autumn 2008, the world has experienced a major financial and economic crisis: the Great Recession. This has been the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression in the 1930s. In its wake, unemployment rose and rapidly developed into the most important preoccupation of citizens.

Against the background of the Great recession, the book, Debating Unemployment Policy, takes a supply-side perspective by examining the ways in which political actors tried to shape the public debates on unemployment in Western Europe. Drawing on interviews with labour market elites, it focuses on Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Switzerland.

Although highly salient among the public, the topic of unemployment was not at the top of the political agenda during the investigation period in autumn and winter 2010/11. This puzzle can be largely explained by the fact that the rescue of banks and the banking system, the sovereign debt problem and the stabilization of the international finance system turned out to be the most pressing challenges.

Given that policy-makers gave priority to these fundamental questions, intensive public debates about unemployment could not be taken for granted. This issue in fact became a matter of political manoeuvring by strategic political actors. The book highlights the crucial role played by the mobilisation of political actors, since they markedly diverged in their propensity to articulate and communicate the issue of unemployment

Based on the country cases studied in the book, four stages of conflict mobilisations were identified: quiet politics, committee politics, plenum politics and forum politics. These stages can be ordered according to increasing levels of mobilisation, implying rising levels of debate intensity.

Quiet politics is characterized by the absence of any mobilisation by political actors. This tends to be the case when a publicly waged conflict has recently been settled or when uncontroversial and highly technical issues are at stake. As a consequence, these conflicts completely escape public attention. In the framework this study, the Swiss case displays the hallmark of ‘quiet politics’, since the national labour market elites were concerned with the implementation of the ordinance of the unemployment insurance.

Committee politics is the stage in which established and powerful actors negotiate with each other to make policy decisions. Participation is restricted to those who benefit from a direct access to the decision-making arenas. As these negotiations take place behind closed doors, political decision-makers are generally able to maintain a high degree of confidentiality, which largely shields them from the public’s attention. Among the cases studied here, the French negotiations on youth unemployment qualify for an instance of ‘committee politics’. The bipartite meetings involved the representatives of the country’s most employers associations and labour unions.

In plenum politics, the locus of conflicts moves from the smoke-filled back rooms to the front stage, thus becoming visible to a larger public. This stage of mobilization basically refers traditional policy decision-making based on the principles of representative government. In the book, the parliamentary debates that occurred in Germany about an adjustment of unemployment benefits and in Denmark about a reform of activation programs for unemployed people were instances of plenum politics.

Finally, forum politics refers to the most pluralistic form of elite mobilisation. It is characterised by a high level of public engagement by numerous and also less established political organisations such as social movements that seek to mobilize public opinion for their respective policy positions, thus giving rise to highly intensive public debates. Among the country cases studied in the book, the debates on adding more flexibility to the Italian labour market in relation to a plant of the carmaker FIAT as well the debate on the introduction of Universal Credit in the United Kingdom have came closest to this stage of conflict mobilisation.

Laurent Bernhard joined the Data and research information services of FORS and specializes in direct democracy, political communication, populism, and Swiss politics. Debating Unemployment Policy: Political Communication and the Labour Market in Western Europe is available now.

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