Tuesday, 21 February 2012

From Welfare to Workfare


Great news being reported on the retreat by multi-nationals and UK corporations from the coalition's attempts to turn the unemployed into slave labour.

As reported in today's Guardian Tesco no less has decided that it has unilaterally changed the basis on which it will continue to engage with the 'work experience scheme' including the option of paid work at the end of the scheme.

The story's link is here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/feb/21/back-work-scheme-disarray-tesco.

Naturally the relevant Ministers are condemning those who are opposing the scheme. Nick Clegg commented to the BBC that the schemes "is not slave labour. It is not compulsory. It is entirely voluntary." But then of course a scheme which penalises with the sanction of benefits withdrawal if the person opts out of the 'voluntary' scheme' is highly questionable.

Moving away from the coaliton's attempts to claw back some credibility from this appaling attempt to disguise era-defiing unemployment figures it is important to locate the coalition's position based on a tradition which is in-part a New Labour legacy.

To get sense of how we got to where we are I can recommend an article (available freely in PDF) by Bob Jessop at Lancaster University: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/sociology/papers/jessop-from-thatcherism-to-new-labour.pdf

In this he charts the ascendancy of New Labour's 'third way, but unpicks the extent to which New Labour offered a variant of the neo-liberalism of Thatcher - what he refers to as 'consolidated Thatcherism'. Here are some useful extracts which illustrate the thesis:

The Thatcher-Major years witnessed a growing turn to neo-liberal workfarism with Major himself being the first to float the idea of 'workfare' to replace welfare before he became Prime Minister. The shift towards 'soft' workfare can be dated from the introduction in 1986 of the Restart Programme (itself modelled on US experience) which invited the unemployed to search for work and accept job or training opportunities in return for benefits.

Having pioneered Keynesian demand management under Attlee, the Labour Party under Blair now advocates full employability achieved through micro-government rather than full employment achieved through macro-economic management; and, having set up the post-war welfare state, it now sees welfare dependency and welfare statism as problems to be eliminated through a mandatory neo-liberal programme of workfarism and the introduction of market forces and business practices into delivery of income support and public services.

This means in turn that the appropriate response to unemployment should no longer be short-term job creation until demand management reflates the economy but, rather, policies to force the unemployed into work (with employers subsidized by the state and/or their employees receiving top-up social security benefits as necessary) in order to reinforce the work ethicr educe welfare dependency, and generate social security savings and/or tax revenues that can be applied to more worthwhile social ends.

Even if we ignore the hard-edged academic analysis what is interesting about the vernacular of New Labour and Labour under Milliband is the way in which it derides the unemployed and the working poor. For example, Milliband's dominant policy focus is the 'squeezed middle' and Brown consistently championed 'hard working families' - the language of inclusion?

How we move forward on the issue of welfare and the treatment of the unemployed under the coalition will be interesting to monitor - what should also be under the spotlight though is Labour's response also.

In Solidarity.


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