Coalition ‘welfare’ policy: back to the workhouse
I’m appalled by the qualified approval by Labour party shadow ministers (and a distinguished Guardian commentator) for IDS’s savage attack on those who for one reason or another can’t work. As Martin Kettle remarked,
“YouGov reported this week that Duncan Smith’s most controversial proposal, the planned compulsory work placements for the long-term unemployed, is backed by 74% of voters. And that is reflected among MPs too.”
This general complacency in the face of almost unprecedentedly repressive proposals for driving the undeserving poor into the workhouse is profoundly depressing. To demonise and seek to punish as scroungers and layabouts the great majority of the unemployed who are either unemployable, or else desperate for work at a time of high and rising unemployment, is nothing short of wicked. To force the medium-term unemployed to undertake compulsory unpaid ‘community work’ — street cleaning, scraping off graffiti, that sort of thing — is absolutely unconscionable. No minimum wage — no wage at all, indeed; no right to join a union or to strike or to demand better conditions, in fact no rights at all; no option to pack it in and look for a better job; occupying a job which, if it’s a genuine one, ought to be available on proper terms to an ordinary job-seeker; literally ‘forced labour’ without even a token wage that would add marginally to overall demand in the economy and thus promote recovery from a recession for which the unemployed bear not the slightest responsibility but of which they are the defenceless victims. To describe it as ‘slave labour’ sounds an absurd exaggeration; yet how exactly is it going to differ? This is a kind of perverted puritanism run wild, based on a fantasy about work-shy scroungers and the idle poor, harboured by politicians with no experience or understanding of tedious, draining, unrewarding, repetitive work supervised, often, by unaccountable bullies.
This whole philosophy, one that treats the mass of ordinary people as work fodder for the enhancement of shareholder value and managers’ bonuses, is repulsive. We are a rich enough society to carry those who for various reasons can’t work — invincible stupidity, poor health, illiteracy, fatigue, stress and anxiety, absence of local job opportunities, whatever — without threatening to starve them if they don’t take some probably quite inappropriate job: or at any rate we could well afford to leave them alone if only we could contrive to arrange a much fairer distribution of the fruits of capitalism. For most professional middle- and upper-class people work brings fulfilment and satisfaction. For millions of the less fortunate, work is a wretched imposition, accepted — if available at all — as a condition of survival in a harsh inequitable society, inimical to relaxed family life, to entertainment, travel, varied experience, to leisure and pleasure and to all the things that make life worth living. Watch the commuters packed into the trains, tubes and buses on their return from an exhausting day at work: observe the weary, resigned, stressed faces, the irritability, the universal sense of fatigue. It’s a necessity for most, but to elevate it to a universally life-enhancing experience is a crude insult.
There’s an excellent letter on the subject in today’s Guardian from Professor Guy Standing of Bath University (name sounds like a character in Evelyn Waugh) which is worth quoting in full here:
Letters: Workfare and the cost of benefits
Those discussing welfare reform should learn some basic economics (Hardship payments to be scrapped, 12 November). The main reason there is high unemployment is that there is insufficient aggregate demand. A second reason is that a market economy needs some unemployment, for efficiency and anti-inflationary reasons. The move to therapy for the unemployed, which Labour pushed, and the workfare scheme of the coalition government, treat unemployment as mainly due to behavioural deficiencies by the unemployed. This is nonsense.
Workfare rests unashamedly on the view, stated by the government’s American adviser, Lawrence Mead, that welfare should be made so unattractive that the claimants will take any job and that they should be encouraged to “blame” themselves. There are many reasons for believing workfare is misguided and ultimately vicious. I have reviewed the evidence in several books, and years ago predicted that this is where the neoliberal state would end.
The objections to the government’s scheme and to the Labour party’s current position include cost. Workfare has proved extremely expensive, and it only manages to be less so because it drives people off welfare and out of the labour market, not into jobs. Guaranteeing the unemployed a job for four weeks is a sleight of hand. What jobs? The likelihood is that they will be “make work” schemes, scarcely of the type to motivate people. They will disrupt any search for meaningful activity, and could intensify any adverse attitude to jobs. If they were real jobs they would lower the opportunity and wages of others already doing or hoping to do such jobs.
But worst of all, coercion will be advanced. There is no evidence that vast numbers of people are suffering from a “habit of worklessness”. Many of those not in jobs work hard, caring for frail relatives or children, dealing with episodic disabilities, and generally working. Building social policy on the basis of a tiny minority being “scroungers” or “lazy” is expensive illiberal folly. Much better would be to go in the other direction, delinking basic income security from jobs and then improving incentives for work of all kinds.
Professor of economic security, University of Bath
That should be compulsory reading for all those who are tempted to suppose that there must be some merit in the coalition’s plans to force the unemployed to work at the very time when coalition policies are gratuitously throwing a million more blameless people out of work. All men and women of good will and even a smidgin of generosity of spirit should resist these repulsive proposals by all available legal means. They should be opposed, not for the sake of opposing, but because they are monstrous.
 To be fair, Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, also stresses that “Jobs, not threats, get families off welfare“, which pithily demolishes Mr Duncan Smith’s whole mean-spirited and misguided project.