There is still a year and a half to go, but the 2013 party conference season might be remembered as the moment the 2015 general election campaign unofficially got underway. Last week, Ed Miliband delivered a speech to the Labour faithful that was in equal parts personal and analytical – yet he made sure reports focused on his headline-grabbing policy announcement on freezing energy prices. Miliband clearly intends to make 2015 the “cost of living” election.
The Conservatives know that they cannot compete on this territory, having presided over a period when living standards have fallen in 38 of the 39 months the coalition has been in office. But in his speech to the Conservative conference, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne outlined what will surely be his party’s central message to the electorate in 2015: scrounger-bashing.
This is the underlying intent of the “Help to Work” scheme he announced this week. Through this scheme, jobseekers that have failed to find work after two years on the Work Programme (the coalition’s principal work-fare initiative) will either be forced to work in the private or voluntary sector for free, attend compulsory training, or agree to daily visits to the job centre to report jobseeking activity.
Failure to comply will result in the loss of four weeks’ worth of benefits. A second breach will lead to the loss of three months’ worth of benefits.
Despite its name, the scheme hardly represents “help” to find work in any meaningful sense (the scheme’s name is probably a rhetorical nod to Theresa May’s 2002 advice to her colleagues that the Conservatives must not be seen as the nasty party – but this is surely about as nasty as a government can get in a country with well-established citizenship rights and the rule of law). The Guardian’s Barbara Ellen remarked:
Instead of being helped, encouraged and empowered back into work, [welfare recipients] must be chided, chivvied and, above all, punished, placed on some modern-day version of chain gangs, including, it seems, even the physically and mentally disabled.
The scheme may in fact be more hindrance than help. Few contemporary policymakers would understand this predicament, but searching for a job is obviously an arduous and exhausting process. Spending time working without pay, or even attending the job centre each day, will probably make work harder to find.
The silliest thing about today’s announcement, of course, is that the scheme already exists. “Mandatory Work Activity” was introduced in 2011; under this scheme, job centre advisers can insisted on claimants taking unpaid work placements in return for Jobseekers’ Allowance. (Tellingly, a DWP assessment described the existing scheme as having had “no impact on the likelihood of being employed”).
This does not mean today’s announcement is not significant. Under the current scheme mandatory work would last for six months, but under Help to Work it appears that mandatory work will continue indefinitely until paid employment is obtained. But its greatest significance is surely what it tells us about the Conservatives, that is, their understanding of the country they govern.
Despite the inconvenient fact that most benefit recipients are actually in paid employment, Osborne claims he wants to eradicate the UK’s “something for nothing” culture. A dose of “tough love”, so the argument goes, is what’s required for the UK’s welfare-dependent hordes. But in demanding that welfare recipients jump through so many hoops in return for their benefit entitlements, including working in unpaid employment, this is probably more accurately portrayed as “nothing for something”.
Labour seems unsure how to respond to the headline proposals. Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne in fact points out on the New Statesman blog that Labour had introduced a version of this scheme before 2010,
[T]he fact that the Tories won’t tell you today is that this announcement is little more than reheating of a Labour scheme – “Work for Your Benefits” – which the Tories scrapped when they came into power.
So, the Conservatives’ biggest crime is plagiarism, rather than the actual policy content? In fairness, however, Labour’s plans for the long-term unemployed are much more focused on carrot than stick. They plan to guarantee a minimum wage job for anyone out of work for more than two years (one year for those aged under 25). This is still merely a sticking plaster for a labour market that simply is not producing enough jobs – but it is much more helpful than Help to Work.