Since the 1980s, successive UK governments have portrayed unemployment as a result of a mismatch between the skills, attitudes and expectations of unemployed citizens and the jobs available. The result has been the construction of a ‘work-first’ system of labour market activation to cajole out-of-work benefit claimants into employment as quickly as possible, irrespective of job quality and wages.
The project challenges top-down accounts that explain this transformation through a focus on the ideas and interests of elites. Adopting an Autonomist Marxist perspective the study instead foregrounds labour as an active agent in policy development, recovering labour’s contestation, subversion and evasion of the demand from policy-makers that people make themselves available for any job.
The core of the work is an excavation of the submerged history of resistance to ‘labour activation’ and an exploration of how past, present and future labour market and social security policy discourses and practices are (re)made. The study applies a Causal Layered Analysis framework, incorporating multiple methods (archival research, critical discourse analysis, oral history interviews and focus groups) to facilitate the retrospective/prospective approach.