Bringing labour back in: class antagonism, labour agency and Britain’s active labour market reforms
Jay Wiggan

Jay is a lecturer in social policy in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. Prior to moving to Edinburgh, Jay lectured in social policy at Queen’s University, Belfast. His research interests lie in the field of labour market policy, principally the transformation of social security and employment policy and administration to support labour activation. Jay’s work in this area has focused on the discourse surrounding ‘welfare reform’; the politics of contemporary active labour market schemes and the varied nature of marketisation reforms in employment services in Britain and Ireland.

Jay’s ISRF project applies a ‘bottom up’ analysis of labour market activation reforms in Britain. Drawing on an Autonomist Marxist theoretical approach, the study seeks to foreground the antagonistic class relations underpinning policy innovation and evolution in social security and employment service provision since the late 1980s.


Since the 1980s Britain has constructed a ‘work first activation state’. Through various employment programmes, curtailment of benefit entitlement, strengthening of sanctions and work related activity attached to (non-employed) working-age benefits the state has cajoled claimants into employment as quickly as possible. The study draws on an innovative political theory rarely utilised in social policy, Autonomist Marxism, to challenge existing top down accounts of Britain’s transformation of social security and employment policy. These typically ground explanations in electoral positioning (tough on welfare), ideas (neo-liberalism) or functionalist logic (necessary for UK growth model). In contrast here we focus attention on how labour market ‘activation’ reforms are rooted in antagonistic class relations through the novel ‘bottom up’ autonomist thesis that positions labour as the motor of change and policy innovation. Faced with labour’s ceaseless evasion of particular jobs and subversion of activation tools the state is obliged to repeatedly respond by creating new instruments and crafting new policy discourses that stratify and segment labour, fracturing its capacity for autonomy in order to (re)impose work discipline.

Bringing together autonomist theory and practice (‘workers inquiry’ method) with social policy and Critical Future Studies (Causal Layered Analysis) the study generates new historical and future oriented empirical data and fresh theoretical insights about labour agency and policy development. Case studies of two key early activation reforms, the imposition of strengthened conditionality through the Stricter Benefits Regime in 1989 and replacement of Unemployment Benefit with the Jobseeker’s allowance in 1996 are used to trace and unpack the dynamics of class antagonism and shifts in policy change and patterns/ forms of labour resistance. These case studies feed into participant led scenario analysis focus groups comparing past/contemporary activation policy and resistance and deliberation about the possibilities/limitations for labour autonomy of alternate future policy realities.

The Research Idea

The study excavates the submerged history of resistance to the imposition of activation measures by claimants of working age benefits and frontline social security/ employment service workers (‘street level bureaucrats’) and how this is central for understanding the evolution of activation reforms in social security/employment policy. This is informed by Autonomist Marxism’s emphasise on labour’s struggle to free itself from capitalist social relations as the motor driving the remaking of employment relations. The innovative thesis is that existing explanations focused on institutions, ideas and (embedded institutional) interests pay insufficient attention to how the exercise of labour agency has shaped successive waves of activation reform. Through ‘bringing labour back in’ our gaze is recast on the antagonist class relations underpinning historic and contemporary activation reforms.
A detailed micro level analysis of the views, practices and language of claimants, activist groups and workers administering activation gives a unique ‘bottom up’ perspective on the dynamic relationship between changes in forms of resistance (individual/ collective) to work and activation and the specific legislative, administrative actions and narratives deployed by the state to weaken labour’s capacity to exercise autonomy.

Combining social policy methods with techniques from autonomism and critical future studies (workers inquiry and Causal Layered Analysis), the interdisciplinary project provides an innovative critical investigation, organisation and interpretation of ‘worker accounts’ and contextual material. It draws attention to the centrality of labour to successive policy changes and how activation reforms have decomposed some forms and patterns of labour resistance, while generating others anew.


Accounts of work first activation reforms in Britain, often concentrate on the electoral logic of activation (popularity with voters); a functionalist logic (how reform supports existing or desired capital accumulation); the role of (neo-liberal and communitarian) ideas and/or the influence of embedded interests (official trade union movement, business, advocacy groups) (Griggs et al, 2014). As a result the state emerges as captured agent of flawed neo-liberal/ social investment ideas or technocrat re-calibrating policy/institutions to reproduce relations of production under new circumstances (Grover and Stewart, 2002; Griggs et al, 2014). This has obscured the antagonistic class relations that underpin capitalist democracies (Crook, 2014), specifically they marginalise the role of labour. When labour interests appear the tendency is to elide these with official unions /social democrat politicians. The practices of (non) employed labour at the point of (re)production that are autonomous from both capital and official labour institutions disappear as policy influences.

The freshness of autonomism is to reject labour as object of reform, positioning labour instead as active subjects, whose ‘refusal of work’, as threat to capitalist social relations (Tronti, 1981; Holloway, 1996; Cleaver, 1979), drives and shapes activation policy (Byrne, 2005). The study consequently situates ongoing activation reform as the state’s response to labour’s contestation of low paid jobs and subversion and evasion of the imposition of activation (Aufheben, 1998). Through ethnographic and document based research the study foregrounds class antagonism as the explanatory factor for successive shifts in activation practices and policy discourses concerning unemployment, benefit dependency and worklessness.

The Focus

Despite questions about the effectiveness of activation services, successive British governments have championed work first labour market activation as necessary to tackle entrenched ‘worklessness’ on the grounds that paid work is morally, socially and economically beneficial (DWP, 2010). The social policy debate on worklessness typically examines the effectiveness of particular activation measures and polarises around the question of whether benefit claimants value paid work (dependency is a myth) or not (dependency exists) (Dunn, 2014; Wright, 2014). This however misses the point because worklessness and activation are not considered in relation to strategic labour agency in the context of antagonistic class relations. More critical political economy perspectives bring power and class into the picture, but from a state/ capital centric perspective where the attention is how the state’s re-regulation of employment and social security functions to support a preferred (anglo-neo-liberal) form of capital accumulation (Berry, 2014).

The problem is these approaches write labour’s (albeit differentiated by social divisions) agency and power out of policy analysis, leaving a gap in our knowledge concerning how the construction of worklessness as policy problem and activation as the solution are manifestations of, and weapons in, class struggle. A fresh approach is to bring labour agency and class struggle to the fore through examining:

  • How claimants and street level bureaucrats have enacted resistance to activation.
  • Submerged narratives of morality, class and/or practicability underpinning contestation/acquiescence to activation over time.
  • The specific state strategies to erode labour autonomy.

Theoretical Novelty

Whilst Autonomist Marxist theory has gained traction amongst scholars critically appraising the remaking of labour market and class relations (Garratt, 2013; Weeks, 2011) there have been few attempts to apply the insights in social policy (Bryne, 2005 is an exception). The theoretical novelty of applying an autonomist framework to understand activation reform is that it conceptually repositions labour as the motor of change rather than the bystander of actions taken by the state. Through scrutinising and developing the explanatory account advanced by autonomism, that the refusal of work engaged in by industrial workers during the 1970s transferred to the social security system in the 1980s following de-industrialisation (Aufheben, 1998), the project adds an innovative new perspective to existing scholarship on the origins and form of Britain’s activation policies and institutions. In turn this provides for new insights into the role of policy reform in reshaping the scope for individual and collection labour action and challenging the current pre-occupation with worklessness as a problem, dis-embedded from antagonistic class relations.

Conceptually, autonomist’s tactic of conducting a political reading (Cleaver, 1981) of state policy reframes activation as a policy of ceaseless cyclical exclusion/ inclusion from the employment relation, intended to erode labour’s capacity for political action. Innovatively this embedding of agency in class antagonism implies asking whether, from labour’s point of view, social policy analysts should pay more attention to how interventions expand or limit the scope for autonomy to exit and exist outside of the employment relation.


Phase one includes review of academic work, critical document and discourse analysis of policy; legislation; cabinet minutes; speeches and material from claimant unions; activists; trade unions; Mass Observation and British Social Attitudes surveys.

Phase two is informed by autonomism’s ‘worker’s inquiry’ which requires that events at the point of (re)production be understood through lived experiences of claimants/workers (Woodcock, 2014). The study includes twenty-one oral history interviews with claimants, campaigners, street level bureaucrats active against the Stricter Benefits Regime/ Jobseeker’s Allowance in four centres of resistance (Brighton, London, Edinburgh, Glasgow) which retain active claimant groups (Aufheben, 1998). Two scenario analysis focus groups will provide participant led deliberation on interview findings, contemporary policy, campaigns and reflection on alternate future scenarios.

Incorporation of Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) gives the inquiry a retrospective/prospective focus on identifying and unpacking the varying ways worklessness/activation are understood and represented;

  • Official/media presentation (simplistic/ obvious) of a social issue/reality (litany);
  • Systemic explanations for a reality (social causation);
  • Submerged ideological/discursive assumptions defining reality (discourse);
  • Popular stories used to represent an issue (myth/metaphor) (Inayatullah, 2004).

Analysis moves across the layers from the superficial to deeper social, economic and culturally embedded processes to unravel the temporal and spatial interweaving of positions and assumptions underpinning activation and its contestation. The integration of CLA gives the study a means to investigate the origins of activation, disturb contemporary portrayals of its purpose and facilitate a re-envisioning of the worklessness/ activation paradigm by claimants and street level bureaucrats themselves.


There are seven strands of work organised in three phases. Phase one (1 & 2) is secondary analysis. Phase two (3 & 4) oral history interviews and focus groups. Phase three (5, 6 & 7) analysis, write up, presentations, data storage.

Work strand

  1. Review and critical document and policy discourse analysis to unpack the litany, social causation, worldview.
    Souces: Journals, books, pamphlets, posters: National Archives; Working Class Movement Library; Labour History Museum; LSE. October- December 2015
  2. Survey data and qualitative sources: societal myths/metaphors. British Social Attitudes; Mass Observation. October-December 2015.
  3. 21 oral history interviews with claimants, activists, street level bureaucrats. January–March 2016.
    Analysis: January-April
  4. Two focus groups; claimants/ activists, street level bureaucrats. April-May 2016
    – Recruitment of claimants/activists for interviews and focus groups through contact with claimant organisations especially in Brighton, London, Edinburgh and Glasgow (e.g. Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty; Brighton Unemployed Centre).
    – Each city has history of resistance to activation and continuing presence of claimant groups.
    – The PI will liaise with contacts in the Public and Commercial Service union to access frontline service workers.
  5. Final analysis: June-July 2016
  6. Presentations of findings and academic write up. July-September 2016
  7. Prepareanonymised data for deposit: September 2016


  • Monograph with academic press (Palgrave; Oxford);
  • Articles in peer reviewed social policy/political journals (Journal of Social Policy; Ephemera);
  • New qualitative data deposited in UK Data Archive;
  • Articles for History and Policy and Discover Society websites;
  • Presentation to academic conferences and non-academic audiences


The novel application of the autonomist perspective proposed here provides original research and theoretical innovation that advances ‘autonomism’ as a useful method of inquiry for excavating the submerged tradition of labour agency as a key factor explaining the form, pace and scope of social policy reform. To ensure this has a long term outcome on the perspective of the discipline and improves connections with those conducting ‘bottom up’ activity to shape policy labour the PI will seek to draw together parties interested in the role of labour agency in the development of social policy. To build durable connections between scholars within and outwith the academy and from different disciplines the PI will establish a new Radical Social Policy Network. This is envisaged as the basis for opening up new lines of thinking, research and debate within social policy oriented to pre-figurative forms of transformative welfare provision based on collective self-organisation and mutual aid rather than state, market or philanthropic interests (Wigger, 2014). In pursuit of this the PI will foster initial collaboration through inviting UK and international scholars from social policy and associated fields (sociology, politics, critical management studies, industrial relations) to contribute autonomist oriented papers to a special themed section of a leading policy journal, broadening the focus, reach and impact of this single project.