Boycott Workfare

So I’ve been looking at protest groups use of social media and the Internet more generally, and this led me to looking at the Boycott Workfare campaign. Now, the campaign website, facebook group(s) and wikipedia page may lead you to think that these schemes were introduced, or at least radically extended, under the Coalition government. A brief newspaper archive search suggests otherwise.

The formation of the campaign is noted as taking place in 2010 on the Boycott Workfare site. The wikipedia page, “Workfare in the United Kingdom”, was created in September 2012. The earliest date in the history section is November 2011, referring to government proposals. The earliest cited article is a June 1999 BBC news article, stating “Britain is inching towards a US-style workfare system, where the most vulnerable are forced to accept any work or lose benefits, says a leading charity.” In combination with the campaign website and the wikipedia page, it would seem that “workfare”, in a UK context, only starts to be proposed in the late nineties (“Britain is inching…”), put into action sometime after that, with public backlash starting to take shape from 2010 onwards.

Given that the main workfare entry on wikipedia dates the term, and its popularisation, to Richard Nixon in August 1969, it would seem strange that the policy had no effect on the UK until over thirty years later yet is common in many other countries. A brief search through the archives of the UK national press shows that “workfare” has a longer history than the Boycott Workfare campaign site and wikipedia page suggest.

The earliest reference I found was in a Guardian article dated June 1986. The report deals with suggestions made in the house of commons relating to the occupation of private land by “hippy travellers” in Hampshire. The report notes that the introduction of a US-style workfare scheme is advocated by a Tory MP, with Thatcher quoted as saying “I am only too delighted to do anything we can to make life difficult for such things as hippy convoys.” This is more explicit in the Times article of the same date, where Thatcher is quoted as saying:

“We are looking at the way Workfare works in the United States. We are finding some of the things we have, such as the community programme and job start, would rank as workfare schemes there. Some of these things are being extended.”

The debate surrounding “workfare” builds during the eighties, specifically relating to “Employment Training” (incidentally, a useful way for the government to re-frame the debate and, at least partly, enabling them to deny the associations with US-style workfare). Criticisms are consistently present throughout the 90s in relation to various Training and Enterprise Council schemes. This is not to say that the workfare schemes that Boycott Workfare are protesting against today are the same as those that began to be introduced in the late eighties. But I think it does point towards the dangers of framing digitally-augmented protest groups as “new”. If boycott workfare is seen as a “counter-discourse” then it clearly has a historical precedent – similar “counter-discourses” arose from trade unions, from the Labour party, and from journalists since the late eighties. It also questions the extent to which we think that protest groups have an effect on the mainstream media – we might suggest that the boycott workfare campaign has made the issue more visible but this seems to ignore the fact that the media have been reporting on debates surrounding workfare for over two and a half decades.

Two things are worth pointing out. Firstly, the more contemporary criticisms surrounding workfare, particularly those from Boycott Workfare, don’t draw the analogy with US-style workfare schemes or earlier Thatcherite proposals, which in turn backgrounds the neoliberal presuppositions of the schemes. Secondly, more contemporary criticisms have drawn a (I think problematic) analogy between workfare and “slavery”. Critics (in the late 1980’s) tended to draw an analogy between workfare and, either, conscription or the workhouse. For example, we have a guardian article in 1987 entitled “echoes of the workhouse in this rhetoric” and comments by Tony Benn equating schemes with conscription. There are no mentions of the term “slavery”. Compare this with the following from the wikipedia page (emphasis added):

“Supporters argue that such policies help people move off of welfare and into employment whereas critics article [sic – argue] that they are analogous to slavery and counterproductive in decreasing unemployment.”

While Boycott Workfare’s campaign page has no mention of slavery, this image is posted to their facebook page:

Not sure what my point is yet, to be honest, apart from pointing this out and warning against treating contemporary protest groups as ahistorical. Maybe more on this soon!

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