The outside agitator wants your biscuit

At a table somewhere in Hypothetical Stories, there’s Dolly from Tunbridge Wells, who reads the Daily Mail and works 35 hours a week for £7 an hour and an evening job on top of that just to get by. And there’s Molly on ESA who’s been registered with WRAG as fit for work, even though she’s waiting on a heart operation. And there’s Polly from Wirral, who graduated from college last year and still hasn’t been able to find a job. There’s a plate with 12 biscuits on the table. Esther McVey and Chris Grayling sit down at the table. McVey picks up the plate and hands it to Chris, who takes 11 biscuits and gives a couple to Esther. And then Esther says to Dolly, “Watch out for the other two, they both want your biscuit,” and Chris nods and says “They’re SWP members – if they weren’t making such a fuss, there’d be more biscuits for everyone.”

David Cameron held a conference at the House of Commons this past Friday to tell Conservative MPs that from now on they had to prepare for the next General Election:

“Cameron told his colleagues they were in a ‘full-time campaign’ to win over the public. One of those present says that the meeting was marked by an ‘absolute determination to govern alone’ after 2015. The focus was on which voters the party needs to win over to get a majority and how it can do that.”

It’s obvious that the Tories have lost the argument on NHS Reform. Cameron may push the bill through anyway – it will be bad for the LibDems who will have to vote for it, and it will be good financially for Cameron’s cronies and Tory party funders. It’s a gamble, but it’s hard to see how Cameron can really lose, providing Nick Clegg can continue to keep enough LibDem MPs voting with the Tories to push it through. And really – whatever LibDem members think, how many LibDem MPs are going to be willing to vote against it, and trigger the breakup of the coalition and an early general election in which they would most likely lose their seats?

But the Tory line on welfare is one which they have managed to create some public support for, thanks to two strong factors. New Labour’s public attitude of hostility to the unemployed, and so many decades of tabloid stories demonising welfare recipients. Many people believe that welfare fraud is a big problem in the UK, that too many people are in receipt of too much benefit they do not deserve. This is not true: but it is certainly part of the public image.

It must have surprised the Tories enormously to find that while attacks on people receiving welfare benefits are generally popular, once the facts about workfare got out into the public domain, this policy of theirs was not popular.

Today in the Observer, Andrew Rawnsley analyses at length the public reaction and the Tory response to the assault on the NHS and the welfare system, which is worth reading in full:

There is instead hostility to the idea that welfare should be an unconditional safety net. The public still has quite generous attitudes to specific groups that are seen as vulnerable, especially children, the old and the disabled. But there is a very wide and entrenched view that the benefits system is directing too much money to the wrong people. This is illustrated by some recent polling by YouGov for Prospect. It found that 74% of voters think that Britain shells out too much on welfare and should cut the amount spent on benefits. Only 17% disagreed.

Strikingly, among those living on less than £10,000 a year – a group very likely to be drawing on help from the state – a majority agreed with the statement “the government pays too much in benefits”. So did a majority of those respondents who described themselves as Labour supporters, a warning to Labour about the potential electoral penalties of opposing welfare reform.

Matthew d’Ancona writes in the Telegraph:

According to the campaigners, who have used social media so effectively, this system amounts to “forced labour”. As it happens, ironically enough, they have focused their fire on the government programme that involves the least compulsion. Participation is entirely voluntary and, for the first week, the jobseeker can walk out if he or she considers the placement a waste of their time. Thereafter, it is true, there are penalties – up to two weeks’ docked benefits – if the participant behaves badly, fails to turn up, or is rude to colleagues or customers. But even these sanctions are discretionary. The point of the exercise is not to coerce or to punish, but to give the young, while still on the dole, a first taste of what work involves: punctuality, teamwork, the correct clothing. It is a basic cultural experience, rather than an economic exchange.

Such a bland rewriting of the workfare experience could only come from someone who has neither experienced it himself nor anticipates that his own children will ever be made to work for no pay for corporate giants who could afford to pay them but will not. Note too the admission that the campaigners “have used social media so effectively” – there is no acknowledgement that this is a scandal and a hissing, that the reason the tide turned against these companies in social media is not only because the people who are being forced to enter these schemes are fully aware that this is not voluntary (and benefits can be sanctioned for 12 weeks for the first offense, not two as Matthew has been told) but also because it is so plainly unjust that if a high street retailer has jobs for people to do, the government is actively encouraging these retailers not to hire people.

The DWP have now edited their instructions for job centre staff with regard to “work experience”, but what it said until recently was:

14. Where you are providing support for JSA participants, which is work experience you must mandate participants to this activity. This is to avoid the National Minimum Wage Regulations, which will apply if JSA participants are not mandated.

(They have also, it seems, been removing FOI requests from their website that listed where commercial organisations had been benefiting from free workfare labour.) And yesterday someone at the DWP Press Office tweeted a couple of comments about businesses on Oxford Street staying open despite anti-workfare protests – which is none of the DWP’s concern.

Chris Grayling has taken the line that the objections to workfare are 100% caused by “SWP activists”. (The Telegraph took the Tory press release on this and churnalised it into a leader.)

Patrick Sawer and Robert Mendick claimed in yesterday’s Telegraph that the government were “embarrassed, but also puzzled that a well-intentioned proposal should have caused mayhem.”

This newspaper’s investigations suggest the Coalition has been caught out by activists working for the Socialist Workers Party, a group that advocates the overthrow of capitalism via a Marxist revolution.

Using a front organisation called the Right to Work Campaign, the radicals have set about undermining what the Government considers vital job opportunities for millions of people.

Those “vital job opportunities” would all have been unpaid, organised by front organisations such as A4E, which is being slammed for fraud and incompetence, and Avanta, which doesn’t seem to be much better.

They go on to comment:

Privately, the Government is mystified that Tesco has so readily abandoned its work experience programme, which provided placements for 3,000 young people. [Or 1400, according to Tesco's own figures - only 300 of whom actually got jobs at the end of it.]

The retailer has announced its own parallel scheme, in which those on placements will receive an average of £7 an hour. The effect has been to undermine the Coalition’s own efforts.

I noted last week in the Ideology of Workfare that the objective behind these schemes is not to get people into paid employment – if that were so, Tesco agreeing to pay people at just over minimum wage would not “undermine” them – but to create a large pool of people who will work for wages significantly below the legal minimum.

The photo used to illustrate Sawer and Mendick’s article is of a protest outside McDonalds on Oxford Street.

McDonalds on Oxford Street London

Apparently you must be a left-wing radical to think that Cameron’s policy of handing a wealthy multinational fast-food company £10 million for an “apprenticeship scheme” is flawed – especially when McDonald’s has not, according to the Sunday Mirror, created a single new job with it.

Instead, the multi-national fast-food giant has spent the whole sum on ­“career progression” for 18,000 existing staff.

A Sunday Mirror investigation has found that among nine other major firms which take the most money from the scheme, ­£20million has been spent to create just 2,559 new jobs.

With unemployment hitting 2.67million PM David Cameron has pushed apprenticeships as a way to get young people back into work. In July he revamped the Skills Funding Agency to work directly with employers and recently said: “Apprenticeships are at the heart of the kind of economy we want to build: one where many more young people have the chance to learn a proper trade.”

Taxpayers have so far paid out £30,934,034 to create jobs which cost £12,088 each. But anyone on an appren­tice’s minimum wage takes home just £5,200 a year.

I’ve been to many demos over three decades as an activist – and at every one, there’s been at least one SWP member trying to sell their paper or offering free placards advertising the Socialist Worker Party, in a fairly obvious attempt to co-opt the movement – LGBT rights, anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-tuition fees – into something the SWP could claim. I have never been to a demo where the Mirror was being sold by the SWP: and I’ve never seen a broadsheet newspaper so readily accept that the presence of SWP newspaper sellers and placards at a demo means the whole thing must be a Socialist Worker Party plot.

The myth of the “Outside Agitator” is strong in the US civil rights movement – the presumption that if only these troublemaking individuals, these “snooty” “job snobs” as Cameron and IDS and Grayling call them, would just stand down and stop complaining, most people would have no problem at all making unemployment claimants work for big business with no wages: that the unemployed themselves are only complaining because a tiny group are telling them to be dissatisfied with their lovely placements giving them so much work experience.

Peter de Lissovoy on “Outside Agitator” and Other Terms of the Times:

Civil Rights Movement was also very much a war of words. Sticks and stones — ropes, clubs, firehoses, dogs, jailtime, rigged courts, and bullets — but the white people were always talking trash — to the best of their ability. We were really “communists.” They were always saying something to this effect. It used to amaze me how often they resorted to such a — to me — bizarre accusation; it was a favorite of theirs. ….. “Outside agitator” was another favorite. They loved this old 1930s lingo, but I was too young to catch those echoes. To me an agitator was some kind of a mechanical device, a component in a washing machine, or whatever. Therefore such words never reached me, never even broke the skin. They were always growling out that one… The whites’ insinuation that had we “outsiders” not been there, the local black folks would not have been “agitated” was so patently absurd and so plain hopeful on the part of the crackers that whenever I heard this terminology I just thought how benighted these white people were really and how much they were going to be required to learn. Peter de Lissovoy was a SNCC worker in 1963 and worked in Atty. C. B. King’s campaign for Congress in 1964.

Miss Manners advice in 22nd January 1997 indicates that the myth of “happy slaves” lasted a long, long time. “Apparently, you need to explain that the nature of the arrangement was never conducive to happiness, regardless of the particular conditions of individuals – and whether or not they found it prudent to feign contentment.”

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Filed under Benefits, Poverty, Supermarkets

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