‘Workfare’: the depressingly sterile ‘left/right’ debate is a challenge to liberals to sharpen our thinking

by Stephen Tall on February 26, 2012

Deborah Orr has a must-read article in the Guardian highlighting the inverted absurdity of this week’s row about the Coalition’s workfare programme, The slanging match over workfare is getting us nowhere.

She points out that the very essence of workfare is government intervention in the workings of the free market, the state urging private companies to offer work experience placements to the unemployed:

For the right, such hapless, inefficient intervention by the state is anathema. When the private sector is left to make its own arrangements, neo-liberals never tire of pointing out, it functions better, to the advantage of all. The left? Well, the left is always keen to cheerlead for state intervention, no matter how perverse the outcome might be.

The fact that the opposite is happening during the rowdy debate over “workfare” is testament to just how dysfunctional the whole issue has become. In the case of the work programme, it is the right that, counterintuitively, is lining up to argue in favour of state involvement in the employment market. The left is rather less enthusiastic, to say the least. Suddenly, the Conservative party is not remotely interested in letting the market decide

The sterile ‘left/right’ debate on workfare

Much of the debate in the past week has been framed by personal/political prejudice.

Those on the ‘left’ appear to believe that every single private enterprise is on a mission to exploit the most vulnerable in society; the bigger it is the more evil it is, apparently. This ignores the fact that most large firms are — by nature of their scale and profits — much better equipped to offer decent pay, conditions and opportunities to their employees than most SMEs could dream of affording. And it assumes that firms are eager to take on so-called ‘slave labour’ when most are well-aware that taking on less-skilled workers can be disruptive and bad for productivity. (For a positive take on the scheme from an employer, see this comment on the Guardian website.

Those on the ‘right’ appear to believe that every single long-term unemployed is a feckless, work-shy benefit dependent who just needs to jolly well pull their socks up. But of course the unemployed are not a lumpen group. Many are readily employable, and quickly return to work. Some, either from specialised industries or in specific localities or with particular health issues, find it harder. To date the evidence suggests that ‘workfare’ is ineffective in helping people back into training or employment, most probably because it is not sufficiently tailored to the needs of its diverse audience.

Unfortunately, the last week’s debate has been a sterile one which has tended to betray the ignorance of those on the ‘left’ who think wealth-creation is for other people, and those on the ‘right’ who think poverty is a state of mind.

Searching for a liberal response to ‘workfare’

I’ve found the ‘liberal’ response to this debate so far uninspiring. Rebecca Tidy’s article here on LibDemVoice adopted the ‘left’ knee-jerk position of attacking the private companies who signed-up to participate in the ‘workfare’ programmes (though all credit to her for engaging fully with the subsequent comments). The Lib Dems and its blogosphere have been pretty much silent on the issue, as have been the party’s three newest policy groups, Social Liberal Forum, Liberal Left, Liberal Reform.

I’ve seen little sign of constructive, liberal policies to address the big issue of how best to help the long-term unemployed back to work. So far, by default I think, party members have settled for saying all such ‘workfare’ schemes should be optional, with no mandatory work programmes accompanied by the risk of losing benefits.

This may be the right approach, but I suspect we’ve chosen it because it’s the easy approach.

Because the plain fact is that we know if such schemes are entirely voluntary, many of those who could benefit from them, and who might as a result be assisted on the path back to work, will opt not to undertake them. Some of those who decline such work experience opportunities are already, or are likely to become, part of the persisten multi-generational unemployed, where whole families — spanning grandparents to teenagers — have no knowledge of the world of work but know every possible twist-and-turn of the benefits system. What is our liberal response to that social problem?

To be clear, I’m not advocating the ‘workfare’ programme in its current form. Nor am I saying that liberals should be supporting wholesale mandatory ‘workfare’ programmes. The evidence to date is far too weak for us cheerfully to approve compulsion of citizens to take on unpaid work ‘for their own good’.

But I would not be against pilot programmes to test and properly evaluate different initiatives, including those which do require mandatory, time-limited work placements for those whose CVs otherwise makes them unemployable. We would then have a much better idea of what is most likely to work. Such evidence might, however, end up taking liberals to some uncomfortable places.

Conclusion

What I certainly think we need is a greater quality of debate on the tricky issues raised by ‘workfare’, both at a national level, but also among Lib Dems. That debate needs to extend much further than the simple and simplistic ‘left/right’ attitudes currently on display, and start grappling with how best we can empower the individual to make the best of their own lives — including, and especially, those who appear to have settled for a life on benefits, and reject all other offers of help.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.