30 Sep 2013

Tory conference: workfare and pacts

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne leaves number 11 Downing Street in London

What’s the record of the government so far on “workfare” type programmes?

George Osborne is selling a massive extension of this approach as a way to “help (the long-term unemployed) into work.”

Is that what the projects tried so far prove, and do they save the state money?

Channel 4 FactCheck has been following this for a while – see Patrick Worrall’s note here. The biggest impact looks like it is made in driving people away from benefits altogether.

The government argues that many of the these refuseniks shouldn’t have been claiming benefits in the first place and might have been part of the black economy working on the side.

But you can’t help wondering how many people are being driven away by the stigma associated with compulsory work, people who either eat into savings or depend on friends or family rather than sign on.

If you wonder how popular policies like workfare are with the electorate you will get your answer as you listen for Labour‘s outright condemnation of the principle of workfare. It will not come.

Read more: Gary Gibbon in conversation with George Osborne

You will hear Labour saying that the policy proves other existing policies aren’t working and that the government has allowed unemployment to go too high. It knows support levels for workfare style proposals is phenomenal.

The chancellor will be spreading some economic gloom in his speech – much austerity still to come, the job not done yet etc.

Deficit reduction has been sliding down the list of voter concerns in a way that is making some lights flash in the Tory campaign team. There’s an opening for Ed Miliband’s “crisis of cost of living” debate if voters become relaxed about the bigger economic story and the Tories want to head it off.

Read more: Tory Conference: red lines, Europe and the ECHR

Close watchers of the conference season may be wondering how, if things are so bad out there, the government’s finding time to spend £650m on free school meals, something similar on the married persons’ allowance and £300m today on workfare but we must wait for the Autumn Statement in December to hear where the money for these and other policies is coming from.

The workfare policy is in part a play for those voters who’ve gone off to Ukip.

As Nigel Farage menaces around the conference perimeter attending fringe meetings, the Tories want to pump out messages that deflate his support.

But they have to do so without losing other voters who came to the Tories in 2010, attracted by the softer tone of Cameroon conservatism.

Read more: Squeezing the “f*** off” vote

This is a conjuring trick that is far from guaranteed success.

When he was asked whether he’d act against Tory candidates who choose to make a pact with Ukip in their constituency, Mr Osborne said on BBC Radio 4 this morning that “the Conservative party will be fielding Conservative only candidates.”

It’s the clearest statement yet that the Peter Bones of this world, flirting with an “understanding” or some kind of endorsement from Ukip, are on notice: it’s against the party rules.

Issuing a warning, of course, is not the same thing as following through on it when it is broken.

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