'Dole autonomy and work re-imposition': an epilogue

It is now more than a year since the original version of this text was written. The text drew some rather gloomy conclusions about current resistance to British welfare restructuring. Little has happened since then to contradict these conclusions.

Submitted by Joseph Kay on February 6, 2007

First, the New Labour 'flagship' policy, the New Deal for 18-24-year-olds, would appear to have had some success in its aim of re-imposing work. Over a quarter of a million people have entered the scheme. Of these, over 100,000 have been found jobs, with another 50,000 or so currently on one of the placements, including subsidized work. Through the New Deal, there has apparently been an increase in the rate at which 18-24-year-olds have left the claimant count, over and above the fall in unemployment that has been taking place anyway due to the economic recovery. At the same time, the continuing fall in unemployment has so far not ignited wage inflation.

The Government has felt confident enough to press on with its programme of welfare restructuring, implementing versions of the New Deal for other sections of non-employed people, such as the over 24s, partners of the unemployed, single parents and the disabled. Greater rationalization is also being brought into the system through the introduction of the 'single work focus gateway' or 'One', as it is now called. The new system entails all benefits being claimed through the same office, rather than the present multi-agency approach. The consolidation of claims enables the benefit system at every turn to orient every type of claimant (except pensioners) towards considering work, rather than simply processing their claims for benefits. Indeed, as a whole, the benefits system is being re-oriented to 'reward work' (i.e. to subsidize low-paying employers) rather than pay for non-work, which is now defined as 'passive welfare dependency'.

As we discussed in the main text, in recent years some of the more effective resistance to changes to the dole came from dole-workers themselves. Under the New Deal, the Government was at pains to introduce a 'new ethos' into the Jobcentres. Those on the New Deal have therefore noticed a more friendly and 'customer-centred' approach from Jobcentre workers. To some extent, this 'new ethos' has dampened some of the dole-workers' militancy. Most of them didn't want the stress of giving claimants a hard time, and now they don't have to so much, so there is less reason for them to resist the New Deal as they did with the JSA. Whereas the JSA was a purely punitive approach to claimants, the New Deal has been understood as an attempt to give claimants what they supposedly want: individualized help in finding work and improving employability.

Yet, despite New Labour's criticisms of and promises to abolish the cynical JSA when in opposition, in Government New Labour has made it the very bedrock of their 'welfare reform' programme. Most importantly, on the New Deal for 18-24-year-olds, the sanctions for refusing or leaving jobs, interviews and placements are those made possible by the JSA: loss of benefits (except housing benefits) for up to four weeks.

In the case of the New Deal for those over 24, the programme is supposedly not compulsory. But in practice claimants find that they have no choice but to take part; in the absence of proof that their own job-search is more effective than the New Deal (not easy when you've been unemployed for 12 months!) to refuse the New Deal simply on the grounds that it is 'not compulsory' is to risk sanction for rejecting a 'reasonable offer' and hence not 'actively seeking work'. Likewise, under the 'single work focus gateway', new claimants who refuse to accept the work-oriented interviews will be liable to JSA sanctions.

Despite the post-election talk of a 'fresh start', therefore, there is a clear continuity between the JSA and the New Deal. Indeed, New Labour is even seeking to strengthen the punitive powers of the JSA because of claimants 'raising two fingers to the system' and 'misusing the New Deal in a way unanticipated', as Employment Minister Andrew Smith puts it. The 'new ethos' has actually enabled many claimants to avoid being found placements or jobs. Around a quarter of those who have entered the New Deal for young people are still in the 'Gateway' (job-counselling) phase. Jobcentre staff have often colluded with claimants by taking the 'new ethos' so literally that in many cases they have stopped hassling people and instead let them remain on the Gateway way past the four-month limit. The Government has now responded to this claimant creativity. David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Employment, has announced a policy of 'three strikes and you're out'. If and when this is becomes law, after their third JSA sanction, 18-24-year-olds stand to lose benefits for six months.

Existing sanctions have already affected more than 12,000 young New Dealers. 'Environmental Task Force' placements, the 'option' that most obviously echoes the discredited make-work schemes of the past, has the highest percentage of sanctions. Many claimants would apparently rather lose their money for four weeks than endure placements in both the Environmental Task Force and the Voluntary Sector!

As we discussed in the main text, 'Welfare-to-Work' and the New Deal in particular are attempts to overcome the chronic dual labour-market afflicting the British economy. The sheer unwillingness of many claimants to play the game, even with the 'new ethos', and the Government's attempts to tighten up the programme to root out these 'overstayers' is a recognition that, despite the initial success of the New Deal, this battle with the 'recalcitrant' unemployed is far from won.

Indeed, this recalcitrance manifests itself in other ways. One of the early criticisms of the New Deal from those who supported its aims was that the claimants who were actually found jobs and placements were those most 'job-ready' anyway. In many cases, the New Deal has failed to improve the employability of those apparently willing to get off the dole. The bosses to whom they have been sent have repeatedly complained of the poor calibre of New Deal applicant. It is less the skills of New Dealers that are missing or at fault than their attitudes and punctuality. Too many lack what are called 'soft skills' - such as the ability to communicate, present themselves and get on with other people. In short, then, while 'Welfare-to-Work' is an attempt to go beyond the legacy of Thatcherite mass unemployment through changing the culture of welfare claiming, it still meets with both creative and 'passive' resistance.
Yet, at the same time, the network of claimants action groups which tried to express dole autonomy as a collective form has gone into a decline. Since our original text was written, the preference among even many of the most politicized claimants for individual solutions has continued, leading to disillusion and pessimism among the claimants groups. The problem is that few new claimants are coming forward to join the groups - particular not young claimants, the group most affected by the New Deal. Turnover of claimants has become higher and, as we have shown above, some scope still exists for individual work-avoidance. In effect, the New Deal has served to outflank the militant claimants network.

When the struggle against the JSA was developing, there were a number of groups who could be expected at least to generate militant literature, to hold relatively high profile pickets or occupations, to propose new strategies of resistance, and to circulate ideas and material amongst the network and beyond. At this time, a number of claimants groups regularly came into conflict with the cops, who also subjected them to surveillance and harassment (Nottingham, Edinburgh, Brighton). Today, there is little evidence of this level of activity. Some of the more militant groups, such as Nottingham, have simply folded. Others instrumental in bringing the network together, such as Oxford, now concentrate on 'solidarity' work of the type done by claimants unions (e.g., advice and individual support) rather than trying to develop their campaigns into a movement of nationwide resistance. The Groundswell conferences have simply stopped happening, and no word is heard from most of the 30 or so groups originally in the network.

The most active groups left from the old network that we know about - Edinburgh, Haringey and Brighton - are actually tiny, and struggle simply to keep going. The Brighton claimants group, which continues to produce literature, hold pickets and harass Jobcentre management and local politicians, has a reputation for successful activity quite out of proportion with its actual practice. The fact that so many militants, both in Britain and abroad, take inspiration from the Brighton group is merely an indication of how weak and despondent the other claimants groups have become.

Some unemployed groups less closely connected with Groundswell - in particular, Newcastle, Blyth, Bolton who form part of the Unemployed Action Group (UAG) network - have sought inspiration from the militant activities of the French and other European unemployed groups. Whereas the Groundswell network broadly shared an explicit hatred of work, the UAG have in common with their contacts in Europe a more traditional social democratic orientation, uniting around the 'Euromarch' banner: 'Against unemployment, job insecurity and social exclusion'. Despite the limits of their ideology, the practice of these British groups has been uncompromisingly militant. They have also made more effort than the declining Groundswell network to compose themselves at a national and international level. On their British 'Euromarch' of 1997, the UAG used the opportunity to occupy and picket any scabbing workplaces on their route - paralleling the actions of the old National Unemployed Workers Movement, such as their response to the engineering lock-out in the 1930s. Subsequently, these same militant unemployed groups have occupied Jobcentres and other offices, including the Welsh Labour Party office in Transport House, Cardiff, during the European Union Summit of June 1998. They were joined in this by participants from the Brighton claimants group, and together they spent the occupation watching World Cup football on the Labour Party's television.

The French unemployed movement, which reached a high point in the winter of 1997, provided some encouragement on this side of the channel, but now seems less impressive. Indeed, the more we have learned about the nature of the French movement, the less inspirational does it seem.[1] It now appears that the image of mass militancy didn't match the actuality of small campaigns of established (and often leftist) political activists. Moreover, even some of those with a critique of wage-labour in the French unemployed movement remain the loyal opposition to the AC! leadership, and share with them and similar groups across Europe the aim of unity through a set of radical social-democratic demands.[2] Despite the strong showing at the Euromarch demonstration in Cologne this year, there is no sign that the Euromarch network as a whole is growing and there are even rumours of its imminent decline.

In the UK there are some small signs of hope. Despite initial success of New Deal in winning over critical dole-workers, the Government's attempt to marketize and improve the 'value-for-money' of the Jobcentres is pushing their employees towards confrontation. First, in a number of pilot-areas, private firms are involved in the administration of the New Deal. In Hackney, east London, for example, employees of these private firms work alongside dole-workers; in such cases, the dole-workers are brutally faced with a possible future: a non-unionized workforce, on lower pay, and subsisting on the number of bonuses gained by finding jobs or placements for their unemployed 'clients'.

Second, in line with the market demand for 'flexibility', many Jobcentres are being pushed to open on Saturdays and other hours previously regarded as off-limits. Already, dole-workers in some areas, such as Brighton, have successfully resisted this. This is important. Not only would Saturday opening mean that claimants would be required to come into the Jobcentre at times they have previously regarded as completely their own, but any success gained by Jobcentre management in imposing Saturday opening could be built upon in order to undermine other vestiges of entrenchment among the dole-workers.

Despite the poor performance of Reed and other private sector firms running the
New Deal, the Government has renewed their contracts. It has also invited other private companies to bid for the running of the 'single work focus gateway' and other new schemes. One of these firms is Andersen Consulting who run the benefits system in Ontario, Canada. Andersen save money by finding ways of cutting off people's benefits. For example, they comb through case files for missing or incomplete information; where they find any, the claimant has two weeks to provide the information or the case is closed.

These developments are at the national level; but, in the case of the local council-run housing benefits services, struggles over the involvement of private companies have already been won and lost. For example, despite a strike, Sheffield housing benefits have now been partially outsourced. But the bid by the private company Capita to run housing benefits in Brighton and Hove has recently been defeated after an intense workers' campaign, including the threat of an illegal 'political' strike; in this case many of the workers involved felt that they had little to lose by threatening such action.

But what are the prospects that 'dole autonomy' and the more generalized unemployed 'recalcitrance' will translate into an upsurge in collectivized claimant activity? Of course, one prerequisite for such a movement is that the long-term fall in unemployment and the relatively high turnover of claimants begins to slow. There is some evidence, at least in some of the regions (Scotland, Merseyside, the North-East, the West Midlands), that this is happening. The currently low rate of growth is by definition not a recession, but it is hardly enough to provide the demand that will sustain the early success of the New Deal. If the number of unsubsidised jobs that the New Deal relies on dries up, only the less popular placements will remain, which will then come more to resemble the workfare that they essentially are.

In the UK, resistance and antagonism from claimants to welfare restructuring has not gone away, but remains fragmented most of the time - reflecting the current fragmentation and weakness in the proletariat as a whole. Those of us involved in Aufheben continue to participate in active resistance to the ongoing attack on the dole, not only in the hope that the essential class antagonism it entails will appear in a more collective form, but also because we are people who use, or expect to use, the dole. As we stated in the original introduction to this text, we seek to defend the autonomy of the dole, not because we want a fairer social contract between capital and labour, but because the smashing of the capital relation, and the end of the distinction between work-drudgery and leisure-poverty, can only begin with the antagonistic realization of our immediate, everyday needs.

August 1999

[1] See, for example, 'The Unemployed Movement: A Struggle under the Influence...' by Olga Morena in Oiseau-tempete, 3, Summer 1998.

[2] See, for example, 'Steps Towards a European Network for Income' by the AC! Commission on Income, December 1998.