A shift of mindset

Do Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Blunkett ever rest? The first weeks since the Tories were routed have seen a transformation of Government. The vigour and pace of change pushed by the new administration has been breathtaking - with the Cabinetís welfare to work Committee established and Ministers rolling out the "New Deal" for the young unemployed within 2 days of taking office. The timing of a Queenís Speech and first budget all attest to the urgency and enthusiam of this Government to start changing the Governmental habits of (near) lifetime.

Equally, though on a rather more modest scale, for the Unemployment Unit and Youthaid, the election of this Government also requires a significant shift of mindset. At the Unit particularly, we had found ourselves in almost permanent opposition to previous Government policy. That Governmentís refusal to accept the real scale and effects of unemployment, their obsession with free-market solutions that didnít work, the drift towards coercion and "workfare" put the Unit in a difficult position. When Civil Servants talked to use (which was not often) it was in near secret and delivered in hushed tones. How many times was I told "we cannot talk to you, our Ministers would be apoplectic".

So, at the Unit we developed a threefold strategy.

Firstly to develop the an expert organisation on the workings of what used to be called "the active benefit system" and is now know as "welfare to work". Secondly, we developed a strong advice and advocacy service based around technical assistance and consultancy within the training, education and employment sector. Our annual handbook - the 5th edition is just out - became a key tool alongside a range of advice pamphlets. A number of funders regarded this a great deal more favourably than our more explicit political work. Lastly, the Unitís strategy involved precisely the sharp political edge which grew from our research, advice and advocacy work.

At all times, the Unitís starting point has been: what genuinely benefits the unemployed and gives them real choices in their return to secure, reasonably paid work? With almost nothing of the Conservativesí agenda that we found favourable, naturally the Unit gravitated very close to the Opposition parties and to Labour in particular. Over the last 10 years, we worked closely with every shadow Secretary of State for Employment and their teams - John Prescott, Michael Meacher, Tony Blair, Frank Dobson and David Blunkett - all of whom now lead or occupy absolutely central places in the new Government. So, helping the Opposition and campaigning for the unemployed against the Government has been the Unitís modus operandi for all our recorded history.

Now we find ourselves in a new situation. No only has the Government changed - and those we helped are now running it - but the Government comes to office with a series of remarkable commitments. The new Labour Government has effectively pledged itself to eliminating longer-term youth unemployment and making a serious effort at reducing long term adult unemployment. Indeed the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has indicated that full employment itself could be re-established as an economic goal for the Treasury and for UK economic policy.

So the Unemployment Unit is now thrust into a new position - working with the Government not against it. But in doing so, we want to retain the independent role and critical edge which has been the organisationís hallmark.

Some difficult balances will need to be struck.. Although Ministers are playing down the compulsion element in the Governmentís new policies, the Unit has consistently argued that a regime relying on benefit penalties is a poor substitute for quality and choice (witness all the Conservativeís programmes, particularly Project Work which the new Government should now scrap). And we shall doubtless err on the side of caution if the Government is tempted to cut corners by implemeting programmes which - damaged by haste - could end up merely "churning" the unemployed or have high levels of substitution or dead-weight.

And, at the Unit, we shall need to shift the balance between policy analysis and policy formulation a little more towards the latter. On the platform of clear principles, our aim is to encourage debate and dialogue between organisations and with the Government about the effectiveness of different policy prescriptions. We bring to that dialogue our expertise and in-depth knowledge about the benefits and training infrastructure and the implementation of policy - much of which is based on real-life advice and advocacy. And, we bring a real a "ground-level" perspective which comes from our development of the Training and Employment Network - a rapidly growing umbrella body representing nearly 500 non-profit agencies who train over 320,000 people a year.

We aim to make the new Governmentís policies succeed. And we look forward to the active and enthusiastic support of a large and very loyal readership of this journal to make it happen.