Welfare to worklessness

The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition plans to complete the dismantling of the welfare state and penalise the vulnerable, argues Robert Taylor. We need a new progressive strategy on employment

August 24, 2010
7 min read

The ultimate purpose of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has become alarmingly clear in only a short time in government. It is to bury the British welfare state as we have known it over the past 60 years – based on a progressive and responsible state, redistributive taxation and social justice.

The Americanisation of this country as the post-war social settlement is destroyed has been going on at a pace since the 1980s. The tragic New Labour years witnessed no respite in that trend. On the contrary, under Blair and Brown the assault on the weak and vulnerable continued, despite the lip service paid to the eradication of child (but not adult) poverty and the cause of greater social equality. This was never clearer than in New Labour’s own increasingly harsh treatment of the unemployed, single mothers and disabled people, as well as its coercive welfare-to-work policies that stigmatised the so-called ‘undeserving’ poor.

By the social standards of western Europe this country has always taken a harsh, punitive attitude to the benefits of the unemployed and this failed to improve under New Labour. The attack on the so-called ‘scrounger culture’ has continued for over 30 years in what constitutes a bipartisan approach to the problem. As a result, it is going to be much harder for the Labour party in opposition to challenge the coalition’s strategy on welfare-to-work, as it must do.

But let us be under no illusion. The Cameron-Clegg government – contrary to its often misleading and honey-coated rhetoric – is intent on an acceleration of the assault on the victims of the coalition’s spending cuts. Those old social liberals, Keynes and Beveridge – founders of the welfare state – must be turning in their graves at what is being done. Even Mr Gladstone would surely not have approved either.

Useful cover

Of course, the Liberal Democrats are providing useful cover for the Conservatives as they relish the transformation of the welfare system. The hapless Danny Alexander as chief secretary to the Treasury has already dipped his hands in the blood. His party has moved decisively to a centre-right agenda in an alarmingly short time in government and ditched the social liberal credentials that many of its members professed to believe in before the May general election. The neo-economic liberalism of the Liberal right – enshrined in their infamous Orange Book – has triumphed.

Over the next few years this country will undergo a wholesale demolition of what remains of the much-maligned public sector.

Up to a million people stand to lose their jobs as a result. The rising number of those without work will face the prospect of inadequate benefits, a coercive welfare-to-work system dominated by private vested interests, a useless and broken training system and a private sector that looks most unlikely to grow fast enough, if at all, to provide jobs for those driven out of the public services under the cuts strategy.

The attempt to distinguish between frontline and back-room services in the public sector was always a cruel deception and the first tranche of coalition cuts has underlined this. The victims of the government’s vicious attacks are going to be nurses, teachers, social workers and any others whose work is designed to help and protect the most vulnerable in our society. It is also spurious to try to separate public sector from private sector employment. The abandonment of capital investment projects to build or modernise schools and hospitals will ensure the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the always precarious construction industry. The end of state support for new industries will hit the private sector even harder. Vince Cable as business secretary looks set to preside over the creation of an industrial wasteland in areas of Britain that are already suffering from high unemployment as he oversees the withdrawal of urgently needed state support.

This is why it is within the broader context of a government-induced shrinking of the political economy that we must assess the future of welfare-to-work and the state’s attitude to those without paid employment.

The coalition’s strategy continues to be based on the highly questionable assumption that there remain plenty of jobs in the labour market that the unemployed can fill if only they are compelled to do so. This involves a disconnection between the realities of a depressed labour market and the ideological belief that those without paid work have only themselves to blame and not the government’s own deflationary policies. The prospect of a double dip recession is going to test the social fabric of our society as never before.

The government’s war on the vulnerable is already causing some concern even among the architects of the bipartisan welfare-to-work strategy. Professor Paul Gregg has voiced his anxiety at the ruthless way in which thousands of disabled jobless are being pushed off disability benefit onto the lower jobseeker’s allowance and ordered to find paid employment. Over the coming years our newspapers are going to be filled with terrible stories of how handicapped and sick people and those suffering from mental illness are being driven into destitution in what will look increasingly like a return to the coercive world of 19th-century Britain with its workhouses, soup kitchens and pawnshops.

Is this what Liberal Democracy means today? The bromides of work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith disguise a sinister plan to make the poor and those on low pay or with no paid work shoulder the heaviest burdens to pay off the public debt created by the bankers.

Restoring a progressive strategy

Under its new leadership, Labour must repudiate the centre-right approach of the Blair-Brown project and restore a progressive strategy on labour markets that is rooted in social democratic values. We must see a credible and idealistic alternative to the government’s illiberal approach to unemployment. This will mean, first of all, a reassertion of the public interest in developing a new approach to the jobs crisis. The contracting out of job placement to profit-making private companies and the withdrawal of the state from its own responsibilities must be reversed.

We need a strategic plan for those without work. It is estimated that there are now more than eight million people in Britain of adult age who are outside the labour market. It is a frightening figure and reveals the waste and hopelessness of too many people in the country’s wastelands. The so-called free market will do little to help this massive part of the potential workforce. It requires instead a huge expansion of training and further education under state direction and control. The state must pursue active labour market policies that can offer genuine paid work experience, classes for those with poor literacy and numeracy and more focused help in job placement.

What is really required is a comprehensive approach to unemployment and the world of work that makes those issues the centre of our democratic politics. This will need a radical approach to the nature of the democratic state. It means a complete repudiation of the coercive, capital-driven strategy against the poor, weak and vulnerable. We must examine what we mean by decent or good work, call for a living wage for everybody and demand new forms of countervailing institutional power that will stand up to excesses of an uncontrolled neoliberal capitalism.

It will require a more aggressive and determined trade union movement that can mobilise workers in both defensive struggles against the cuts and in support of radical ideas for the world of work that can ensure a new flexibility in how working time and working life is organised.

The British left needs to break out of its stifling, technocratic attitude to this vital issue. It is not enough simply to reject welfare-to-work as a cruel deception that stigmatises the real victims of capitalism’s crisis. We need a broad public debate on what needs to be done to end the jobs crisis.

This means not an inward looking, narrow focus on Britain alone but an international approach that recognises and responds to the global nature of the current crisis. Now we can see the end of the New Labour project with its self-defeating appeasement of big business. It is the moment for a new democratic left politics of diversity, pluralism and opportunity that recognises the realities of class and unequal power.


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