Workfare and the Fabians

Britain’s Fabian socialists are famed for their contribution to modern welfare policy. They are particularly well known as architects – or at least popularisers – of ideas about the public provision of labour exchanges, health care, pensions and a range of other foundation stones of the welfare state. A reasonable assessment must acknowledge their central role in developing important institutions and measures that were taken for granted until the end of the twentieth century.

We know less about their part in promoting paths that in the end were not taken, perhaps the chief of which was a new design for incarcerating the poor. At the time, they were responding to the failure of the 1834 Poor Law to deal with unemployment, as well as the inability of the workhouse to cope with groups such as vagrants and the sick. But if we look back from the present, we can see the Fabians as the Edwardian designers of what we now call Workfare.

The Webbs made no bones about it: for those who were unemployed for more than a few months, their favoured solution was compulsion. Maintenance, they wrote in 1911, should be conditional on such training – physical and mental, general and technological – as may be found appropriate. They developed a proposal for training centres, run in conjunction with the labour exchanges and offering a combination of physical exercise and basic adult education alongside skills training. Some would be residential and based in the countryside,  while day centres ran in the towns.

Like many Edwardian reformers, the Webbs worried about those who refused to train. For those who insisted on sponging on the public, the Webbs proposed compulsory segregation’in what they called reformatory detention colonies. This idea – which Sidney described as following strict eugenic lines – had a history among the Fabians. In 1890, Sidney Webb reassured readers that they need not worry that socialist would deal tenderly with chronic cases of sturdy vagrancy, idle mendacity and incorrigible laziness’ – under socialism, they would go straight into a labour colony.

Nor were the Webbs alone. In a collection of essays edited in 1908 by George Bernard Shaw, Annie Besant laid out a plan for County Farms in each region, run by trained and experienced agriculturalists, housing the unemployed in the towns, the agricultural laborers who have wandered townwards in search of work, and many of the unskilled laborers.

H. G. Wells was a maverick (and philander) among the socialist planners, but he was also interested in work camps. Writing in 1903, Wells advocated a general conscription and a period of public service for everyone, mainly as a means of promoting a sense of civic obligation, with every class in the community having a practical knowledge of what labour means.

Wells’ ideas had wider support among the Fabians. Writing shortly before the 1929 election, Sydney and Beatrice Webb called for a national Government Labour Corps, a suggestion that Sidney riginally made in 1886.Young unemployed men who refused to serve, they recommended, should be committed to a penal detention colony. G.D.H. Cole also spoke publicly in support of a National Labour Corps in The Next Ten Years, which the prolific left-wing economist, historian and policy thinker published in the hope of influencing the 1929 Labour Government.

Beatrice Webb returned to the topic in her evidence before the Royal Commission on Unemployment Insurance in 1931, calling for a National Labour Corps, recruited from the unemployed, who would be sent about in detachments, equipped with tents, lorries and tools . . . to execute works of coast protection, embanking and draining land, and other improvements. She also thought government should have powers to order the unemployed to undertake Swedish drill.

It is important to understand these ideas in their historical context. Many people favoured labour colonies for the poor – especially for what they called the ‘won’t works. Relatively few, though, favoured compulsion, and a bare handful pursued the idea as consistently as the Webbs. Interestingly, Margaret Bondfield, Labour’s first cabinet minister, introduced compulsory service in work camps for unemployed young men in 1929.

Like the Fabians, Bondfield believed that she was doing it for their own good. It seems, then, that for all its admirable concern for equity and social justice, when it comes to work and unemployment, the socialist tradition includes a rather persistent streak of authoritarianism.

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