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
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
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
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.