Bringing labour back In: class antagonism, labour agency and Britain’s active labour market reforms

Dr Jay Wiggan


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.

Jay Wiggan ISRF

Jay Wiggan 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.



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