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Donkin on Work - Work Futures

April 2007 - Work and the permanent revolution

The “vision for work” speech made by Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, in Manchester went much further than outlining his Government’s welfare, education and employment policies. It was a thoughtful analysis of just how far employment has changed in the past twenty five years and what may lie ahead.

Mr Blair spoke of a “permanent revolution” in the way we work that he expects to intensify in future. In some ways his vision did not seem very far removed from that of Lady Thatcher’s first Conservative government that promised to roll back the frontiers of the state.

It was Mrs Thatcher, as Prime Minster, who extolled the virtues of hard work and Victorian values. Now Mr Blair’s Government appears set on returning to traditional ideas of work as salvation.

“For most of the wider labour movement, for most of its history, the idea of people not working when they could was thought of as bizarre. The earned wage was always thought to be the best insurance against unearned misfortune. It was obvious to the founders of the Welfare State that work was the best form of welfare,” said Mr Blair.

“However, unwisely, the two ideas became detached and we allowed ourselves to think that improving the welfare of the poor was principally about raising benefit levels. In putting work and welfare back together again we have returned to the original idea. It involves an active Welfare State seeking, above all, to get people back into work.”

Jim Murphy, employment and welfare minister, had raised a few eyebrows earlier in the week when he made the point even more starkly, declaring that work was the only way for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Kate Green, director of the Child Poverty Action Group said she was aghast at the minister’s comments. She argued that the welfare state should aim to lift those genuinely incapable of work out of poverty.

Her concerns are understandable. In any caring society there has to be a safety net to help those who cannot help themselves. But there is a danger of creating a dependency culture if people find they can get more in benefit than they can from working.

To set benefits above the official poverty line, argued Mr Murphy, would be to create a position where hundreds of thousand of people found themselves better off in benefits than in work.

This would suggest that there is a need for the welfare system to distinguish between the helpless and the feckless. This is easier said than done. At what level of disability, for example, should someone be judged unable to carry out work?

What also, of those, such as some lone parents, who have various dependents and whose caring responsibilities preclude them from holding down a job? What of the single teenage mother of two, without work qualifications and with babies not yet out of nappies? Yes, we can turn around and say she shouldn’t have been so silly, but what of the children? Should they be condemned to a life of poverty because of the circumstances of their birth?

Mr Blair was speaking of a modern welfare state that must seek to do more than provide a route from benefit to work. While part of his speech, as might be expected, listed various Government initiatives designed to improve skills and provide more avenues in to work, there was an emphasis on policies that invited partnerships particularly in education between schools, colleges and business. “Business and education will move even closer together and rightly so,” said Mr Blair.

What stood out for me in his address was its recognition that the way we work has reached a kind of watershed, moving away from the “right to work” struggle of the original Labour Party towards a “right to good work.”

To that end, said Mr Blair, the government was channelling technology and training in to the poorest communities. “All of this is about the quality of work, not just the fact of it. In turn this depends crucially on the ability to work in the way you want,” he said.

The underlying ethos, however, remains wedded to the principle that work is good for people. Is this not exactly the same principle that was expounded in Victorian society by writers such as Thomas Carlyle who held that “all true work is sacred?”

Not everyone among Carlyle’s contemporaries agreed. John Stuart Mill wrote that work was “not a good in itself. There is nothing laudable in work for work’s sake.” But Carlyle’s more pragmatic view of work prevailed and influenced both Andrew Carnegie’s famous Gospel of Wealth and Samuel Smiles’ book, Self-Help.

So is the Labour party returning to the principles of “self-help” that was interpreted by Carnegie and others as helping those who are willing to help themselves?

Crudely applied, such beliefs influenced the original workhouses, an early and misguided attempt at linking welfare and labour. The workhouse system that fractured families and subjected the poor to a degrading institutionalised existence created far more harm than good.

The emergence of the welfare state was the social revolution that replaced such ill-founded measures, but the road to salvation from poverty through work remains at the foundation of welfare to work philosophy.

Its latest manifestation is the stick-and-carrot style approach in the New Deal designed to ease people out of employment through a combination of active encouragement, progress monitoring and the threat of reduced benefits for those who reject this avenue in to work.

This combined approach of incentive and threat was pioneered in Denmark’s Youth Unemployment Programme. The Danish youth unemployment rate had risen to 14 per cent during the recession of 1993. But a package of youth measures introduced in 1996 led to dramatic reversal so that today the youth unemployment rate has fallen to just over 5 per cent - one of the lowest within the European Union.

The success of these initiatives suggests that welfare to work, backed by a robust support system for the needy in society, can be viewed as a winning formula and not as a return to Victorian values. The modern workplace is changing fast, absorbing new thinking - often reinforced by regulatory pressure – in flexibility and home working.

It is easy to forget in the face of what we perceive to day as a “long hours culture” that, as Mr Blair pointed out , the average working week for a manual worker in 1943 was 53 hours, while today the average week of a full a time worker is 37 hours.

The need in future, he said, is not that people balance “work” and “life” in separate compartments but that they see it as a whole in a new age of “individual empowerment”. Freestyle working: is this the permanent revolution? Bring it on.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved