How the New Deal feels

The lower the unemployment rate falls, the more New Labour seems obsessed with the jobless.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

What do you get when you cross a disgraced UK transport secretary, a beleaguered government spin machine, and a prime minister determined to distance himself from all of them? Welfare reform, of course.

Tony Blair’s announcements, on 10 June 2002, of a big increase in the Job Centre Plus system, which denies benefits to claimants who refuse offers of work, have been widely reported as an attempt to distract attention from the petty spin scandals of the past couple of weeks. Chancellor Gordon Brown backed him up with military rhetoric: ‘Just as we have been winning the battle to increase employment and entrench stability, we must now win the productivity war’ (1). Fight them on the beaches, Gordon!

By capitalising on its success with reducing unemployment, it is argued, the government hopes to go beyond spin and get real, shifting the discussion back on to policy, politics and what (in New Labour’s terms, anyway) amount to Big Ideas. Will it work? Not in those terms, no.

The abandonment of the Old Labour goal of full employment was one of the defining features of New Labour. So there is something peculiar about the way that, the lower the unemployment rate falls, New Labour’s obsession with the jobless increases. When New Labour came to power in 1997, unemployment was already at its lowest level for over a decade, at under two million (2). That did not prevent the government from introducing, as one of its flagship policies, the New Deal scheme – basically, a version of the welfare-to-work schemes that had already been used in Britain and the USA, which relied on withdrawing benefits from claimants who refused to take a job, or involve themselves in education, the voluntary sector or community work.

The upshot of New Deal has been – what, exactly? The government trumpets its success rates. The grammatically challenged Department for Work and Pensions website tells us that from the launch of New Deal in 1998, the government ‘fulfilled the 1997 manifesto commitment to help 250,000 young people into work in [sic] September 2000’, and that ‘the figure of 351,340 New Deal for Young People clients into jobs was reached by the end of January 2002’ (3). But for everybody else, scepticism runs amok. Whatever the government is hoping to do through New Deal, it is not generating safe headlines.

Take a look, for example, at BBC News’ reports on New Deal: which throw up related reports headlined ‘Labour claims New Deal success’, followed by ‘New Deal cost “underestimated”’, ‘New Deal claims “exaggerated”’, ‘Does the New Deal work?’, ‘New Deal “an expensive flop”’, ‘New Deal “helped only 20,000″’ (4).

All these relate to claims that New Deal costs more than providing benefits, and that most of the people whom the government claims to have provided with work through New Deal would have got jobs anyway – which is probably true, given that even the New Deal’s own website admits, ‘[F]or the first time in a generation, we have more vacancies than unemployed people claiming benefit’ (5).

As an anti-unemployment measure, then, New Deal is neither necessary nor popular. But why should that bother the government? New Deal is not about spin, or even about unemployment. It is about recasting the relationship between the individual, work and society, and placing another brick in the wall of the therapeutic state. What matters to this government is not that people are out of work, but that it feels that people are out of touch; and the aim of New Deal is not to employ people, but to get in touch with them.

New Deal started out as a scheme aimed at 18- to 24-year olds who had been claiming benefits for six months or more. No surprises there – welfare reform usually starts with the yoof, presumably because their parents bear the brunt of their penury. But young people have a particular place in the government’s worry-bag, given that the electorate of the future expresses an abject refusal to vote or to take an interest in politics. The government would like to keep tabs on all of them through education, but failing that, a subsidised job or community work will do.

Then came to the blossoming of New Deal to cover different types of groups: New Deal 50 plus, for over-50s claiming benefits, New Deal 25 plus (work it out), New Deal for Lone Parents, New Deal for Disabled People, and New Deal for Partners (to help partners of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance into work). New Deal can also, apparently, ‘help people who want to work for themselves’ (ie, the self-employed) (6). Not poor people, necessarily – but people whom the government suspects of being out of the loop.

Painfully aware that it cannot engage with people through politics, the government relies on finding other points of contact: through education, through family policy, through work – or through New Deal.

Because New Deal is about contact, not cash, it works on an explicitly therapeutic model. New Deal for Lone Parents (focused on in Blair’s speech yesterday) offers ‘an opportunity to build your confidence and meet people’ (7). Over the next period, New Deal plans to make better use of mentoring. Mentors, says its website, ‘can give practical advice on a wide range of work-related issues, as well as help with training or personal issues’, and treats us to a case study of Maureen the mentee: ‘Marge was my listening ear, a shoulder to cry on and an inspiration because she made me think of things I could follow through which I never thought I was able to do. She made me feel very positive and worthy.’ Mentoring is a two-way relationship, of course: so Marge the mentor has become ‘more aware of the varying problems facing young people’ (8).

Even the dreaded Job Centres are designed to be more like therapists’ waiting rooms, through the creation of Job Centre Plus. This brings together benefit offices and job centres, so that, as Tony Blair said yesterday, ‘instead of simply dishing out cash, personal advisers provide everybody coming through the door with advice and support’. In order to play this role, front-line staff will be ‘empowered’: ‘simply handing benefits out was demoralising and unsatisfying’, whereas ‘talking face-to-face with clients about their prospects for work, personal advisers will make a real difference’ (9).

Whether the front-line staff will take to this is another matter: they recently staged a strike over their safety, after management removed protective windows ‘to emphasise the positive side of seeking work’ (10). Do you blame them, really? What the government seems to have missed is that people who have to trek down the dole office might not want to be advised and engaged and included and mentored: they might, indeed, want the staff to be ‘simply handing out benefits’.

Last night, meanwhile, Tony Blair hosted a reception for four single mothers who found jobs as gas fitters with British Gas after completing a training scheme at a London college. This was to promote the government’s new ‘Ambition: Energy’ scheme, which is run with the help of leading energy companies and aims to create 4500 skilled jobs in the next three years (11).

Somebody might tell him that what the nation really needs are plumbers. But hey, so long as it can be seen to boost single mothers’ confidence, does it matter what work they are actually doing?

(1) Blair plans welfare revamp, Guardian, 10 June 2002

(2) Table 4.20, Social Trends 30, 2000 edition, Office for National Statistics

(3) Milestone for New Deal youngsters, Department of Work and Pensions, 27 May 2002

(4) Blair seeks welfare ‘sea change’, BBC Online, 10 June 2002

(5) Why is it different?, New Deal website

(6) What is New Deal?, New Deal website

(7) New Deal for Lone Parents, New Deal website

(8) How does mentoring help?, New Deal website

(9) Full text of Tony Blair’s speech on welfare reform, Guardian, 10 June 2002

(10) Blair plans welfare revamp, Guardian, 10 June 2002

(11) Blair plans welfare revamp, Guardian, 10 June 2002

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Topics Politics

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