By Estelle Cooch
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Every little helps

This article is over 11 years, 9 months old
"A spirit of anti-capitalism stalks the land, a fire-breathing beast that has shrivelled Stephen Hester's bonus in its nostril-blast, and scorched Fred Goodwin's knighthood, and now seeks whomever else it may devour."
Issue 367

It is not often that Tory politicians paraphrase the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, but this the conclusion of Boris Johnson amid the furore over the Workfare scheme.

On 18 February when the Right to Work campaign protested at a Tesco store in Westminster, few could have predicted what was to follow. Within a fortnight the minister in charge of the scheme, Chris Grayling, was forced to call a “crisis meeting”.

Now Emma Harrison, boss of Action 4 Employment, one of the leading “welfare to work” companies, has been forced to resign as the Tories’ “family tsar” and as chair of A4E following fraud allegations. The entire scheme is in disarray. The Labour Party has so far been remarkably silent, uncertain how to react.

But such an unbelievable retreat was not caused by “a small band of militants”, as the right wing press would have us believe. The issue of workfare had led to the convergence of two types of growing and popular anger.

The first is what David Cameron, in a revealing speech, derided as “anti-business snobbery”. Cameron declared, “In recent months we’ve heard some dangerous rhetoric creep into our national debate that…people in business are out for themselves.”

This is particularly acute among young people. One study for MORI found that over half of UK adults aged 16 to 34 said that the banking crisis had affected their trust in “all businesses”; 76 percent of those polled said businesses would “never be open and honest unless forced”.

For many people the scheme is reminiscent of the Youth Training Schemes (YTS) of the early 1980s that forced school leavers onto scheme, providing employers with cheap labour. But even the YTS schemes did not have the level of corporate involvement that Workfare has seen.

With youth unemployment hitting 21.8 percent and attacks on the NHS, the increasingly nasty and rabid Tory right reeks of the 1980s and has fed into a general anti-Tory mood.

Implicit in the logic of Workfare is the idea that people are not unemployed due to lack of jobs, but rather because of lack of skills or laziness. Interestingly the rate of those leaving Job Seeker’s Allowance who haven’t been on the schemes is 60 percent, 10 percent higher than those who have. It would seem that young people have a better chance of leaving JSA by not taking part in Workfare at all.

The furore around Workfare has led to the convergence of an anti-Tory mood and a growing anti-capitalist mood. It is also reflective of a remaining social democratic consciousness in Britain. Support for the welfare state, progressive taxation and a desire to protect against total corporate power retains a strong hold among the working class. The NHS, for example, is still consistently voted “Britain’s favourite institution”.

While the protests will not be decisive for the coalition, they have contributed to a growing anger around austerity. To quote Tesco, every little helps.

Estelle Cooch

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