Will the Work Programme work?

Some key background reading to understand the debate on welfare reform.

Liam Byrne, the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has successfully created a bit of a stir with his intervention on welfare reform in Monday's Guardian. There is more planned, with speeches on the subject over the next few months. 2012, I'm told, is meant to be the year that Labour gets back into the conversation about welfare reform. Since the election, the terms of debate have been effectively set by the Tories. Public opinion remains steady in support of cuts to the benefits bill, with a widespread perception that the last government lost control of spending and was relaxed about people choosing to live on the dole. Iain Duncan Smith's popular promise to reform the system to "make work pay" has, senior Labour figures privately concede, effectively shut the opposition out.

Whether Ed Miliband can get back in is the subject of my column in this week's magazine. One key factor will be the question of whether the government's welfare plans will actually work. There is already a lot of disquiet around the Work Programme, the huge welfare-to-work scheme under which private and voluntary sector providers compete for contracts to place the long-term unemployed in work. The contractors are paid according to how effective they are in matching their "customers" with jobs. As I write in the column, the whole thing starts to break down if there simply aren't enough vacancies around to fill. The scheme was designed at a time when the Department for Work and Pensions expected the labour market to track optimistic growth forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility. The OBR turned out to be wrong, of course.

But even if vacancies are there for some of the people being transferred onto the Work Programme, there are serious doubts being raised in the welfare-to-work sector about whether some of the providers will be able to meet their targets. There is also a lot of suspicion around that some of the providers won their contracts with unrealistic estimates of how much it actually costs to train someone who has been out of work for a year and find them a job. There are some rumbling noises around about the Work Programme either collapsing or, more likely, needing to be bailed out by government.

For anyone interested in welfare-to-work policy detail, I recommend the following links:

Public Accounts Committee report on "Pathways to Work"

This is a parliamentary investigation into a pilot scheme set up under Labour to use the private sector to help claimants of incapacity benefit back into work. Mostly they failed to meet their performance targets and generally performed worse than the Job Centre. A number of organisations named as serious under-performers in the report won contracts under the Work Programme.

The Social Market Foundation report: Will the Work Programme Work?

The think tank that pioneered payment by results as a mechanism for improving delivery of welfare-to-work programmes questions whether its ideas have been implemented in a way that is likely to get the desired outcomes. (Answer: no.)

BBC Radio 4: The Report - The Work Programme

Almost everything you need to know about welfare-to-work schemes in one handy half-hour radio documentary.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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