The Work Programme destroyed a job for every £4600 it spent

Not a paragon of efficiency.

The government is now trying to spin the Work Programme figures, as expected, by focusing on the initiative's "cost effectiveness". The BBC's Nick Robinson, for instance, writes:

Ministers claim that they are meeting their "off benefit targets" and that they are saving money too. The cost of every job secured under their Work Programme is, they say, just over £2,000 compared with a cost of almost £7,500 under Labour's [Flexible] New Deal because the contractors are only paid 60% of their fee once someone is in a sustainable job: ie for six months.

It's certainly the case that Labour's programmes were more expensive than the coalition's replacements. But what this spin demonstrates is a serious failure to control for background noise. The Work Programme is, so far, worse than nothing at ensuring "job outcomes" – that is, people in unsubsidised work six months after they leave the programme. In the first fourteen months, 3.5 per cent of participants achieved job outcomes, but for people not on the programme, 5 per cent were expected to get jobs, according to Labour's shadow minister Liam Byrne.

(The news shouldn't be hugely surprising – one very effective way to get a job is to spend all day every day applying for jobs. Any training programme has to overcome that hurdle.)

Some quick back of the envelope maths, here. The full data is simply not available, but if ministers are saying that the Work Programme cost £2000 per job, and we know that there have been 32,310 job outcomes, then presumably they are claiming a budget to date of £65m.

Given that 5 per cent background rate, we can expect that if the Work Programme had never been instituted, there would have been 46,000 jobs in the normal process: 14,000 more.

In other words, the Work Programme did not cost £2000 per job. Instead, for every £4,600 it spent, it destroyed one participant's chance of employment.

Updated: The effect of the work programme was on the 14,000 job difference, and so the effect is one job destroyed for every £4,600, not for every £1,400. 3.5 per cent is the result for the first fourteen months, not the first year. Clarified the source of the 5 per cent figure.

Men at work. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.