WITH the Thatcher government almost halfway through its second term of office and the issue of unemployment bound to be of crucial political importance in the next two years, the handling of the jobless crisis is obviously of deepening interest to the mass of the British electorate. The government believes that its consistent economic strategy of holding down and reducing inflation, certainly below 5 percent and possibly to the low figures of Britain's competitors, is the answer to the dole queues. Keeping down large wage claims, which the Thatcherites say helps to make the United Kingdom more competitive in world markets, is a major part of government policy.
Mrs. Thatcher believes that only with the weeding out of inefficiency and overmanning and by creating modern industries will the United Kingdom be able to prosper, and she claims that a great deal of progress has been made in this direction. But will her plan really cure the present high level of 3 million unemployed?
According to City stockbrokers Grievson & Grant, the Conservative administration will be faced with 5 million jobless people by 1987. The firm has warned that it would take 10 years of present government policy to significantly reduce unemployment.
But there will be 3.8 million unemployed by 1987, with another 1 million on special training schemes, says the stockbroking company.
Prodded on by Westminster Tory critics like former Prime Ministers Ted Heath and Lord Stockton (formerly Harold Macmillan), Mrs. Thatcher recently appointed Lord Young, one-time head of the government's Manpower Services Commission, to spearhead a drive for more jobs.
An important part of Lord Young's task is to tackle youth unemployment and the hard core of jobless people who have been without jobs for a year.
But there is controversy surrounding government claims that the Manpower Services youth training scheme is succeeding in placing sufficient trainees in jobs. The state commission recently reported that 56 percent of teen-age trainees had been finding jobs, but this figure has been disputed by some youth organizations. Mrs. Thatcher's proposal that school leavers should be able to undertake training rather than continue to draw social security while looking for work has also aroused fierce arguments. Many people support compulsory job training, but a significant number of others oppose it as authoritarianism or a form of industrial conscription.
Again, there is widespread concern about the possible closure of 29 of Britain's 87 job-training ``skillcenters.'' Eighty-five thousand people are trained each year at these centers, but the government (which has not taken account of the social security costs of making thousands of trainees redundant) wants a cost saving operation which will save 12 million ($13 million) and close one-third of the skillcenters.
Yet Mrs. Thatcher said in the Reader's Digest in 1984 that ``we have job seekers with so few marketable skills to offer potential employers.'' Apart from the threatened skillcenter closures, the United Kingdom lags behind its West German and French competitors in industrial training.
The Thatcher administration has admitted that 3.3 million Britons will be unemployed by 1987, the pre-election year for Westminster polling.
The Labour and Conservative Parties, with the Social Democratic Party in the middle, realize that the key to political power and popular support lies in practical programs to curb widespread joblessness. Labour and Social Democratic leaders -- and to a more limited extent the Confederation of British Industry -- want a massive public investment program in housing, sewage construction, and other social services.
But the government, which is spending 40 billion on social security and faces the problem of supporting a growing number of pensioners, will continue to resist public works spending as inflationary and will aim to reduce taxation as a means of helping business investment and new jobs.
While the Conservative government continues to hold a lead in the opinion polls against the main Labour opposition, this can be eroded if it is seen that Mrs. Thatcher's long-term monetarist policies are not controlling the dole queues. The growing divisions between the comparatively well-off south and the economically depressed north, with Scotland, Wales, and Ulster facing grave economic problems, have been accentuated by the government's ending of regional aid and its failure to stop decay in northern cities.
Ministers want the state to help the new computer and electronic industries rather than the older regional trades, many of which are in serious decline. But church leaders are claiming that cities like Liverpool, Newcastle, and Glasgow are continuing to decay because of government inaction.
The Bishop of Durham has continued to accuse Mrs. Thatcher of allowing many children in his diocese to live in poverty.
A report by the Independent Family Policy Studies Center -- the survey was commissioned by the government's Social Security Department -- has said that thousands of children are wearing secondhand shoes and clothes because of parental poverty. Government assertions that there is a social security ``safety net'' for poor people have been regularly challenged by claimants' unions.
Controversy about the government's handling of the welfare state will continue, but it is the unemployment issue that will decide Mrs. Thatcher's political future.
John Connell is a free-lance writer on British affairs.