New Labour/Hard Labour?

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Eds: Gerry Mooney and Alex Law, The Policy Press, £22.99

I started to read New Labour/Hard Labour? the day after New Labour's chancellor, Alastair Darling, made his October pre-budget statement to the House of Commons. Minutes earlier I'd put down a copy of the Guardian newspaper in which Polly Toynbee railed against a government that could give £1.4 billion to the children of the well-off in the reduction of inheritance tax while allocating the children of the poor an additional 48p a week in tax credits.

The title of Toynbee's piece was "This was the week that Labour's leaders left social democracy for dead". In it she argued that New Labour is now a centrist government in Europe's most unequal country. Ironically Gerry Mooney and Alex Law preface their book with a quote from Toynbee on her 2003 experience of flexible working in the health service.

What they set out to do is to explain how welfare services and the working conditions of welfare workers have been shaped by neoliberalism. Mooney and Law describe the current situation as "strenuous welfarism". In their view this is characterised by flexible work, greater intensity, longer hours, proceduralisation and commodification.

The other contributors look in depth at what this means for industrial relations, the labour process and the impact on workers' experience in PFI hospitals, nursing, teaching, higher education, nursery nursing, social work, the Department of Work and Pensions and the non-profit welfare sector.

The writers are academics, but the great strength of all the contributions is the way they weave theory with practice. Most of the chapters include case studies which give space for the authentic voices of workers in the welfare sector.

While neoliberalism may be hegemonic in the first decade of the 21st century this book shows how, in every part of the welfare sector, workers are engaged in contesting its ideas. Perhaps the best example of this can be found in Michael Lavalette's discussion of social work, where he highlights the way Liverpool social workers struck and fought for a very different concept of welfare which resonated with the concerns of the global justice movement.

While in one sense the strikers were fighting for a concept of themselves as professionals, Lavalette shows very clearly how this could only be expressed through collective trade union action. I was struck by the way that the themes of professionalism and commitment to human centred welfare ran through all of the accounts, but also by the way in which context and history condition the circumstances under which different groups have to fight.

So nursery nurses struggle for decent pay and recognition against both neoliberal restructuring and traditional ideas of the status of women's work. Higher education staff, on the other hand, face similar pressures but in a context where notions of professionalism were shaped by an elite education system that served the needs of an earlier stage of capitalist development.

In their conclusion Mooney and Law highlight the structural limits of strenuous welfarism, the nature of struggle - sometimes overt and active, at other times through withdrawal of consent - and the possibilities for change. Order this book for your trade union branch and local library - it's a must for activists in the welfare sector.