Workfare: Unexpected Intern in the bagging area

The truth of the matter is that the government cares more about statistics than genuinely tackling unemployment.

Children have a terrifically simple way of exploring the limits of adult knowledge. They do so by asking a question, then responding to each new piece of data with “but, why?” The, almost inevitable, ending to this line of questioning is either “because I said so” or “I don’t know, that’s just how it is”.

James O’Brien on LBC seems to have elicited similarly impatient but illuminating responses from Iain Duncan Smith on the subject of workfare. Talking about Cait Reilly, who was recently successful in challenging the legality of the state compelling her to take an unpaid placement in Poundlad, Smith declared: “She was paid. What do you think the taxpayer was paying, for God’s sake? Job Seeker’s Allowance? That is what we are paying her to do.”

The interview reveals the dark heart of the matter when it comes to Work Experience, Youth Training Schemes, Mandatory Work Activity, Community Action Programmes and the rest of a panoply of such schemes. Smith ended up describing workfare schemes as “us allowing people to continue to earn their JobSeeker’s Allowance, but also to take experience in companies that allow them to do that.” That’s a lot of allowing; a lot of noblesse oblige.

However one chooses to dress it up, at the core of such policies is the idea that by paying a benefit the state (and by extension the taxpayer) assumes part-ownership of the labour of persons in receipt. I find this position irreconcilable with the ideological basis of a party which believes that the state needs to shrink to as small a size as possible and stand out of the way of individuals who wish to “get on”. The action does not match the rhetoric. What the state is actually doing is buying the labour of millions of people, en masse and below market rate, in order to then contract it out to large and profitable businesses for nothing.

Such schemes do not end the “something for nothing culture”. They simply elevate it to the corporate level. It is a paradox for traditional right-wing commentators who object to funding an individual’s benefits, to appear quite happy to cross-subsidise a huge conglomerate with global revenues of $100bn in 2010.

When opposition to the scheme was first gathering pace, Tesco explained that of the 1,400 people who have been made to serve them (because to use the verb “employ” would require some consideration on the part of Tesco), 300 got a job with the company. This means one of three things, all three very worrying. Either:

  1. Tesco were genuinely trying to fill 1,400 positions, but  were only capable of training roughly one in five people to stack shelves in six weeks. Or:
  2. There were only 300 positions in the first place (probably due to natural turnover, which I imagine is quite high), but Tesco decided they might as well conduct six-week interviews on our buck. Or:
  3. There were 1,400 genuine vacancies in the relevant stores, but why on earth would they fill them with paid employees, when they can have a rolling six-weekly army of 1,400 free ones?

The effectiveness of such schemes is also highly contentious. The government commissioned its own research before implementation. It concluded:

There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers. Subsidised (“transitional”) job schemes that pay a wage can be more effective in raising employment levels than “work for benefit” programmes. Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.

Perhaps most importantly, these schemes are a state-form of denial; a particularly egregious case of ostrichism. We know from an official response to a parliamentary question that the Office for National Statistics includes people on such unpaid schemes in their data as “employed”. Such schemes are being rolled out on a massive scale. 370,000 unemployed were referred to the Work Programme in the first few months of its existence. Over a million people are expected to be caught by Community Action Schemes. The manipulation of statistics at such a scale may go some way to explaining the continuing disparity between rising “employment” and stagnating or contracting GDP.

Policy on these schemes has become axiomatic. It has become the art of “because I said so” or “I don’t know, that’s just how it is”. It has done so in the face of evidence to the contrary, creationist in its resistance to the truth. There is an overwhelmingly idiotic assumption at its basis; that the reason 2.5m jobless will not fit into 500,000 vacancies, is not mathematics, but a lack of willingness on their part. How can the state tackle unemployment if it is unaware of how many people are genuinely unemployed, where they are and which industries they are trying to find work in?

All this lays bare a stark fact: the Government is interested in the figures looking good, rather than genuinely tackling unemployment. For how can one solve a problem by hiding it in dark statistical recesses and denying it exists? With increasing job insecurity, that is something that should concern us all, regardless political persuasion.

 

Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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No, identity politics is not to blame for the failures of the left

This is no time to back away from our commitment to women’s rights, racial justice and sexual equality.

In these troubled times, it's good to know that moderate conservatives, anxious liberals and even your neighbourhood Trotskyist uncle can come together against the common enemy: students. Prissy, stuck-up students, with their trigger warnings and political correctness and highfalutin ideas about racial justice. It must be their fault. Forget the gurning neo-fascists goose-stepping into power across the globe, it's the students who are the real enemy. If they hadn't been so hung-up on identity politics, we wouldn't be staring into this abyss. You know I'm right.

That was me being sarcastic. The reason I need to point that out is that on or around 9 November 2016, the age of irony gave way to a new one of deadpan sincerity. It happened at some point between the election of an orange billionaire tycoon to the White House and authorities condemning Native American protesters at Standing Rock under the outgoing administration. So, unfortunately, I must be clear: no, I don't think that “identity politics” is the greatest threat to western civilisation. Some people, however, really do, and are at pains to point out that this geopolitical disaster could have been avoided if we had all been less precious about gay rights and women's rights and black lives and concentrated on the issues that matter to real people. Real people meaning, of course, people who aren't female, or queer, or brown, or from another country. You know, the people who really matter.

In the wake of successive victories for the venal far-right, commentators from all sides of the self-satisfied, chin-stroking debate school are blaming “identity politics” for the disaster on our doorsteps. What they seem to mean by this is “politics that matter to people who aren't white men in rural towns”. I have always thought of that simply as politics, but according to Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Times, I was mistaken. Diversity, Lilla writes, is:

“A splendid principle of moral pedagogy  but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

This is an idea that has remarkable staying power across a fractious and divided left: the idea that issues of race, gender and sexuality are at best a distraction from class politics, and at worst a bourgeois tendency that will be destroyed after the revolution. The logic is that by focusing on issues of social justice, the political class has abandoned “real” working people to economic hardship.

This notion is horribly wrong, and the worst thing is that it's wrong in the right direction, a train of thought that stays safely on track right until it slams into the hoardings next to the station. The political class has indeed rolled over and let kamikaze capitalism wreck the lives of working people around the world. Identity politics, however, has little to do with that cowardice. That the two are now yoked together in the popular imagination is something the left must answer for.

All politics are identity politics, but some identities are more politicised than others. The notion that the politics of identity and belonging have been allowed to overwhelm seemingly intractable issues of class, power and poverty is, in fact, entirely correct  but this is not a problem for the traditional left. It is a problem for the traditional right, which has pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy for centuries, pitting white workers against black and brown workers, men against women, native-born citizens against foreigners in a hierarchy of victimhood that diverts energy and anger away from the vested interests bankrolling the entire scheme.

As journalist Michelle Garcia noted, responding to Lilla in the New York Times:

 “The attack on political correctness fits within the brand of identity politics Donald Trump exploited during his campaign. Mr Trump's victory relied on fusing a culture of racism and sexism with economic anxieties and the backlash against neoliberalism.”

It's a shell-game. A con. It did not start with Donald Trump, but the real-estate mogul and social media tantrum-artist has taken it to its logical conclusion. The president-elect and his fellow travellers and sugar daddies have committed political fraud against the entire western world. They have compounded it – as all good fraudsters do – by making us believe that it was our fault for being so naive in the first place.

It is, to some extent, reassuring to believe that it’s all our fault. If it’s all our fault for being too politically-correct, too committed to “diversity”  if it were liberals and leftists who messed up by listening to these whining hippies with their patchouli-scented ideals of fairness and tolerance and police not shooting young black men dead for no reason  we might have to face the much scarier notion that what’s happening is, in fact, beyond our control. Instead, those who should know better are encouraging the most vulnerable to throw themselves under the bus for the greater good. This is not just offensive. It is also stupid.

The truth is that social justice and economic justice are not mutually exclusive. Those who would sacrifice one for the other will end up with neither, which is of course what the unscrupulous narcissists manspreading at the gates of power are counting on. The mainstream political left has, for generations, been unable to answer the core economic issues that  shocking, I know, but hear me out  affect the lives of all human beings, of every race, gender and background. For generations, in the face of late capitalist hegemony, all it could realistically achieve was to tweak the system incrementally, making things a little fairer for individual groups, without challenging the structural inequalities that created the injustice in the first place. This must change, and soon. Not just because of “fine moral principles”. Trying to fix economic policy without tackling structural inequality is not just morally misguided  it is intellectually bankrupt.

Race, gender and identity are not side issues in the current crisis. On the contrary. Capitalism has always divided its labour supply along lines of race and gender, ensuring that in times of unrest, we don't start burning our looms  far safer for us to set fire to one other. All politics are identity politics, and this is no time to back away from our commitment to women’s rights, racial justice and sexual equality. This is when we double down. The fight against the corporate neo-fascism funnelling out of every television set is not a fight that can be won if liberals, leftists and social justice campaigners turn on one another. It is a fight that we will win together, or not at all.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.