The long road from welfare to work

Will the government’s proposals to change the way training providers are paid really help solve the

In one of the upstairs rooms at the Rathbone training organisation's facilities in Oldham, Greater Manchester, Josh Duffy is leaning back on a chair that is too small and totting up the organisations that have tried to help him get a job. Rathbone is the sixth training provider with which Josh, who's just become a dad, has had contact since leaving school two years ago.

We count them up: first, there was North Lancs Training, where he studied construction. He left to go to Oldham College, where he was enrolled on a Level 1 bricklaying course. Then, after he decided that wasn't for him, a company called Work Solutions provided him with a mentor and some help writing a CV. "I didn't see them often. I didn't have much chance of getting a job. I was young and I had no experience," Josh explains.

After about six months without progress, he applied for plumbing. But that was with a private training provider and Josh couldn't afford the £2,500 fee. Next, he embarked on an "entry to employment" course with the YMCA. After eight weeks there, things seemed to be looking up. He had certificates in first aid, manual handling and safety, and the YMCA had moved him on to something called a "foundation modern apprenticeship" in retail, with a placement at an Ethel Austin clothing store. A couple of months down the line, he was told there wasn't any prospect of a job – the chain was cutting the hours of permanent staff and later went into administration.

So, Josh washed up at the door of Rathbone, which found him a work placement at a local store called B&M Bargains. Despite his ropey training history, the charity was prepared to give him a go, secure in the knowledge that it would be paid for its work. In future, it might have to think harder about doing this. The new Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, proposes that organisations delivering his welfare-to-work programme should be paid by results. That, according to Paul Fletcher, Rathbone's director of youth engagement, will leave them with tough decisions to make about whether to carry on doing what they do best – taking the most disaffected young people off the streets and setting them on their feet – or to focus on the easy-to-help and a healthy bank balance. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with payment by results, he tells me, it's just that it doesn't seem to have been adequately thought through.

“Principles are good, but the consequences for the financial balance sheet can be messy," Fletcher concedes. "The big question for organisations like ours is: do we start to be more selective and drive our performance in terms of who we are going to get paid for, or do we stick with our mission and risk not actually getting paid? The way a lot of providers will respond is by being selective at the front door. That means the most vulnerable and the most marginalised could end up going underground, losing their benefits and going into the black economy."

Revolving door

Duncan Smith's proposals are an extension of rules that began to be implemented under the last government. Under Labour's Flexible New Deal, providers were paid 20 per cent of their fee – typically about £1,400 in total – upfront, 30 per cent when clients had found a job and stuck at it for three months, and the rest after they'd been working six months. Now, it's likely that the full payment will not come in until they have stuck with a job for a year.

In some ways, what is happening is a fundamental shift in the way we deal with the young unemployed. Previously, the critical target of government programmes was to get people off the books of organisations such as Jobcentre Plus, so the end result was less important.

Julie Bird, the Rathbone tutor who brought Josh to the centre, sums up the old approach: "Everybody has targets to meet and as long as [the clients] are in some kind of training, it makes the statistics look good." The problem with this, she explains, is that these programmes become an end in themselves. Lots of people, like Josh, end up in a kind of revolving door, spat out by one provider, then sucked in by another. "There's quite a few in that situation," Bird says. "There's not always a guaranteed job at the end of it. Once the young person's off that book, there's no follow-up."

So well recognised is this phenomenon that there's even a word for it in the trade – "churn". There is no requirement for training organisations to monitor how many times their recruits have been around the course before, so there are no statistics to back up the sense that these short-term fixes haven't been working. Yet a major study on disengaged youth published in 2008 by the Nuffield Foundation and Rathbone estimated that four out of ten young people who were out of work were caught in a repeating cycle of short-term courses, casual employment and joblessness.

Rebuilding walls

Duncan Smith's payment-by-results plan is designed to deal with this. The question for the new government will be whether, by such a simple expedient as not paying the providers of back-to-work schemes until they deliver long-term results, it can reverse decades of labour-market casualisation and even the age-old tendency of the young to drift from one job, or one course, to another.

With youth unemployment hovering at the one million mark, and reports that there will be 70 applications for every graduate job this year, the issue looks unlikely to go away in the near future.

Fletcher has a different solution, which is gaining currency among many of those who work with the young unemployed. We should, he says, return to the glory days of Margaret Thatcher's Youth Training Scheme (YTS). One of Fletcher's first jobs was running such a scheme. "We rebuilt people's garden walls with old tradesmen passing on their skills, so there was job satisfaction and understanding," he says. "The key thing is, it's got to be perceived as real. At the time, I thought it was just OK, but with hindsight it was a good scheme."

YTS, he points out, was a 12-month placement – later extended to two years – with a non-means-tested allowance of around £30 a week – the same as today's education maintenance allowance, and in real terms about three times as high. Most of the participants progressed into real jobs.

Josh, after many false starts, has almost managed to do the same. He's just been told B&M Bargains is prepared to take him on as an apprentice. He talks with enthusiasm about his workplace, where he has been getting a £30 allowance for a 30-hour week since last November. "I'm looking after the furniture department. I build displays and do merchandising. It's great – I like hands-on work," he explains. As an apprentice, he'll still be on a low wage: "It's rubbish, but it's got to be done," he says, cheerfully. For him, finally, there should be a happy ending. It is much less clear how the legions of similarly unlucky or confused young people will fare under the new system.

The lost generation

Unemployment rose from 1.3 million to more than 3.4 million during Margaret Thatcher's premiership. Families were hardest hit in Northern Ireland, where unemployment reached 20 per cent, and in Scotland and the north-east, where the jobless rate was roughly 15 per cent.

In response to the persistently high rates of youth unemployment, Thatcher founded the Youth Training Scheme, a programme offering on-the-job training to 16- and 17-year-olds. The scheme was praised by some as an effective replacement for apprenticeships, but others argued that it enabled employers to exploit school leavers as cheap labour.

Many historians view the rise in unemployment as a regrettable but necessary consequence of the Tories' economic policies. Others, however, contend that the Thatcher government deliberately raised unemployment in order to destroy trade union militancy. Sir Alan Budd, who recently resigned as head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, said in 1992: "Raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes, if you like . . . What was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism, which recreated a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since."

George Eaton

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party

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The love affairs of Stan Laurel: "If I had to do it over again things would be different"

A romantic who craved stability, the English comedian Stan Laurel led a Hollywood love life as chaotic as his films’ plots

The comedian Stan Laurel was, even by the standards of his time, a prodigious correspondent. The Stan Laurel Correspondence Archive Project contains more than 1,500 artefacts, and these are only the documents that have so far been traced, as many of his early missives appear to have been lost. He was, quite literally, a man of letters.

His punctiliousness about correspondence can be ascribed, at least in part, to his natural good manners, but letters were also a means of filling his long retirement. He outlived his screen partner Oliver Hardy – “Babe” to his friends – by almost eight years but refused all offers of work during that time. Instead, heartbreakingly, he wrote sketches and routines for the duo that would never be performed. It was, perhaps, a way for Laurel to speak with Babe again, if only in his head, until he followed him into the dark on 23 February 1965.

Though Laurel and Hardy have never been forgotten, they are currently undergoing an energetic revival. Stan and Ollie, a film dramatisation of their later years, starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, is scheduled for release in 2018. Talking Pictures TV is to start showing the duo’s long features from September. Sixty years since Oliver Hardy’s death on 7 August 1957, the duo will soon be rediscovered by a new generation.

They were such different men and such unlikely partners. Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890, in Ulverston, then part of Lancashire, the son of AJ, a theatre manager, and Margaret, an actress. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 and never again considered an alternative profession, eventually leaving for the United States to act on the vaudeville circuit before finally ending up in the nascent Hollywood. Norvell Hardy, meanwhile, came from Harlem, Georgia, the son of a slave overseer who died in the year of his son’s birth, 1892, and whose first name, Oliver, Norvell took as his own.

Hardy, who had worked as a singer and as a projectionist, became a jobbing actor, often being cast as the “heavy”because of his bulk. Laurel, by contrast, was groomed for stardom, but it repeatedly slipped through his fingers. Unlike Chaplin’s Tramp, or the boater-and-glasses-wearing Harold Lloyd, he had no persona. Only when Hal Roach paired him with Hardy did he finally find a mask that fitted, and thus a professional marriage slowly grew into a friendship that would endure until Babe’s death.

Laurel was the creative engine of the partnership, creating storylines and gags, intimately involving himself in the directing and editing of each film, but Hardy was the better, subtler actor. Laurel was a creature of the stage, trained to act for the back rows; Hardy, by contrast, had watched countless films from his projectionist’s perch and knew that the smallest of gestures – the raising of an eyebrow, a glance flicked in the audience’s direction – would be writ large on the screen. Laurel recognised this and tailored his scripts to his partner’s strengths.

Thus – and unusually for such partnerships – they never argued with each other about either screen time or money, despite the notorious parsimony of their producer Hal Roach, who paid them what he could get away with and would not let them negotiate their contracts together in order to weaken their bargaining position. Indeed, apart from one contretemps about the degree of dishevelment permitted to Babe’s hair, it seems that Laurel and Hardy never argued very much at all.

And then Babe died, leaving his partner bereft. What was a man to do but remember and write? So Laurel, always a prodigious correspondent, spent much of his retirement communicating with friends and fans by post. It helped that he had a curious and abiding affection for stationery. During one of the many interviews he conducted with John McCabe, his first serious biographer, Laurel revealed a wish to own a stationery store. Even he didn’t seem sure exactly why, but he admitted that he was quite content to while away entire afternoons in examining grades of paper.

Since letters were Laurel’s primary source of contact with the world, much of his writing is quite mundane. He deals with repeated inquiries about the state of his health – “I’m now feeling pretty good,” he informs a Scottish fan called Peter Elrick on 8 June 1960. “I suffered a slight stroke in ’55, fortunately I made a good recovery & am able to get around quite well again, of course I shall never be in a condition to work any more.” He notes the passing of actors he has known (to Jimmy Wiseman on 29 January 1959: “That was a terrible thing about [Carl] ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer wasn’t it? All over a few dollars’ debt he had to lose his life. I knew him very well as a kid in Our Gang films…”), answers queries about his films and his late partner (to Richard Handova on 21 March 1964: “Regarding the tattoo on Mr Hardy’s right arm – yes, that was an actual marking made when he was a kid – he always regretted having this done”) and often writes simply for the pleasure of having written, thus using up some stationery and enabling him to shop for more (“Just a few more stamps – hope you’re feeling well – nothing much to tell you, everything is as usual here,” represents the entirety of a letter to Irene Heffernan on 10 March 1964).

In researching my novel about Stan Laurel, I read a lot of his correspondence. I had to stop after a while, because the archive can overwhelm one with detail. For example, I might have found a way to include Oliver Hardy’s tattoo, which I didn’t know about until I read the letter just now. But of all the Laurel letters that I have read, one in particular stands out. It was written to his second wife, Ruth, on 1 July 1937, as their relationship was disintegrating. It is so striking that I quote it here in its entirety:

Dear Ruth,

When Lois divorced me it unbalanced me mentally & I made up my mind that I couldn’t be happy any more. I met & married you in that frame of mind, & the longer it went on, the stronger it became. That’s why I left you with the insane idea Lois would take me back.

After I left you, I found out definitely that she wouldn’t. I then realised the terrible mistake I had made & was too proud to admit it, so then I tried to find a new interest to forget it all, & truthfully Ruth I never have. I have drank just to keep up my spirits & I know I can’t last doing that, & am straining every effort to get back to normal.

You’ve been swell through it all, except the few rash things you did. I don’t blame you for not being in love with me, but my state of mind overrules my true feeling. If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business. My marital happiness means more than all the millions.

Why has this letter stayed with me? I think it’s because of the penultimate sentence: “If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business.” Hollywood brought Laurel a career, acclaim and a personal and professional relationship by which he came to be defined, but all at a price.

Stan Laurel was a complicated man, and complicated men lead complicated lives. In Laurel’s case, many of these complexities related to women. His comic performances and lack of vanity on screen often disguise his handsomeness, and monochrome film cannot communicate the blueness of his eyes. Women fell for him, and fell hard. He amassed more ex-wives than is wise for any gentleman (three in total, one of whom, Ruth, he married twice), to which number may be added a common-law wife and at least one long-standing mistress.

Had Laurel remained in Britain, serving an apprenticeship to his father before assuming control of one of the family’s theatres, women might not have been such a temptation for him. At the very least, he would have been constrained by a combination of finances and anonymity. Instead, he left for the United States and changed his name. In 1917, he met Mae Dahlberg, an older Australian actress who claimed to be a widow, despite the existence elsewhere of a husband who was very much alive and well. Laurel and Mae worked the vaudeville circuit together and shared a bed, but Mae – who lacked the talent to match her ambition – was eventually paid to disappear, as much to facilitate Laurel’s wedding to a younger, prettier actress named Lois Neilson as to ensure the furtherance of his career.

Yet it wasn’t long into this marriage before Laurel commenced an affair with the French actress Alyce Ardell, one that would persist for two decades, spanning three further nuptials. Ardell was Laurel’s pressure valve: as marriage after marriage fell apart, he would turn to her, although he seemed unwilling, or unable, to connect this adultery with the disintegration of his formal relationships.

The end of his first marriage was not the result of Laurel’s unfaithfulness alone. His second child with Lois, whom they named Stanley, died in May 1930 after just nine days of life. For a relationship that was already in trouble, it may have represented the final, fatal blow. Nevertheless, he always regretted leaving Lois. “I don’t think I could ever love again like I loved Lois,” he writes to Ruth on Christmas Eve in 1936. “I tried to get over it, but I can’t. I’m unhappy even after all you’ve done to try to make me happy, so why chase rainbows?”

But chasing rainbows was Stan Laurel’s default mode. He admitted advertising his intention to marry Ruth in the hope that Lois might take him back. Even after he and Ruth wed for the first time, he wrote letters to Lois seeking reconciliation. It set a pattern for the years to come: dissatisfaction in marriage; a retreat to Alyce Ardell’s bed; divorce; another marriage, including a year-long involvement with a notorious Russian gold-digger named Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, known by her stage name of Illiana (in the course of which Laurel, under the influence of alcohol, dug a hole in his garden with the stated intention of burying her in it), and finally contentment with another Russian, a widow named Ida Kitaeva Raphael, that lasted until his death.

These marital tribulations unfolded in full view of the media, with humiliating details laid bare. In 1946, he was forced to reveal in open court that alimony and child support payments left him with just $200 at the end of every month, and he had only $2,000 left in his bank account. In the course of divorce proceedings involving Illiana, his two previous wives were also briefly in attendance, leading the press to dub Lois, Ruth and Illiana “triple-threat husband hazards”. It might have been more accurate to term Stan Laurel a wife hazard, but despite all his failings, Lois and Ruth, at least, remained hugely fond of him.

“When he has something, he doesn’t want it,” Ruth told a Californian court in 1946, during their second set of divorce proceedings, “but when he hasn’t got it, he wants it. But he’s still a swell fellow.”

Laurel’s weakness was women, but he was not promiscuous. I think it is possible that he was always looking for a structure to his existence and believed that contentment in marriage might provide it, but his comedy was predicated on a conviction that all things tended towards chaos, in art as in life.

Thanks to the perfect complement of Oliver Hardy, Laurel was perhaps the greatest screen comedian of his generation – greater even than Chaplin, I would argue, because there is a purity to Laurel’s work that is lacking in Chaplin’s. Chaplin – to whom Laurel once acted as an understudy and with whom he stayed in contact over the years – wanted to be recognised as a great artist and succeeded, but at the cost of becoming less and less funny, of leaving the comedian behind. Stan Laurel sought only to make his audience laugh, and out of that ambition he created his art.

“he: A Novel” by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party