Image: Remploy from francis mckee's Flickr Photostream

I saw Government Minister Mark Harper interviewed on my local television news the other day (BBC Look East, Jan. 12th 2015). He was talking about how, in his opinion, the closure of the last publicly owned Remploy factories was, somewhat counter intuitively, great news for people living with disabilities. It was a convoluted argument, as you might imagine, but it did clearly illustrate one thing – that the destruction of Remploy is a story that sums up a lot of what has gone wrong with the politics of wellbeing over the last few years.

From the earliest days of the post-war welfare state, the UK government established a network of factories, offices and workshops where people living with long-term disabilities could find employment. In the thinking of the time, Remploy (as the organisation was known) was established to allow disabled people to have access to work in a way that was “sheltered” from the harsher environment of the wider employment system. People with disabilities weren’t excluded from the rest of the labour market – the idea was that they were offered extra support and extra security by the state, on account of their relative disadvantage and vulnerability. The Remploy idea was a product of classic European welfare state thinking.

Remploy grew from small beginnings in the mid 1940’s to become a national network of nearly a hundred sites providing employment for up to 10,000 people by the 1980’s. The factories and workshops produced a variety of goods (including furniture, stationery and medical equipment) and the organisation latterly moved into more contemporary areas, such as monitoring CCTV footage.

The socio-political underpinnings of the Remploy model are not difficult to understand. The basic proposition is that the State uses its resources to provide people living with disabilities the opportunity to enjoy the various benefits of employment. Those benefits include the ability to earn money, experience social inclusion, have social contact and interaction with friends and colleagues and derive the meaning, sense of identity and long-term accomplishment that traditionally come with the simple idea of “having a job”.

It is often said that a society can be judged by how it looks after its most vulnerable members. And by that token of measurement, the existence of Remploy, with its protected, publicly funded access to work for all kinds of people with disabilities, was a feather in our national cap. This was essentially the case until – how often do you hear this? – New Labour came along.

One of the most passionately pursued projects of Tony Blair’s movement was the so-called modernisation of the state. Raised during the Cold War, the ascendant generation of centrist politicians felt the need to expunge from national life everything that looked or felt a bit “Soviet”. Famously, that led to their enthusiastic continuation of Thatcher’s grand scheme of dismantling publicly owned industry, handing utilities and services to private companies and introducing “market disciplines” into the NHS. Less famously, but very much of a piece, the New Labour years also saw the first organised closures of Remploy workshops.

Their reasons for attacking Remploy, like the reasons of the Coalition after them, were ideological. In the post-89, end-of-history playbook, the State must desist from being a provider and, instead, become an “enabler”. Social projects like Remploy were simply seen by modernisers as being too Eastern European.

On top of this, new philosophies of inclusion demanded that people with disabilities joined the “normal” labour market. Anything else would be patronising and old-fashioned. So, whichever way you looked at it, protected employment for disabled people (supported by the Sate as ‘provider’) had to go. And in its place, the State (as ‘enabler’) would make sure that individual disabled people could prepare themselves for work and that employers would be forced to ensure them fair access and potential advancement. Always keen to back things up with a bit of “policy-based evidence”, the government commissioned disability campaigner Liz Sayce to write an “independent” report explaining why their decisions were the right ones.

The final closure of the Remploy units was a disaster for the disabled workers concerned, as a survey carried out by the GMB Union towards the end of 2014 showed. As many people feared would be the case, the vast majority of sacked Remploy people are not making much headway in today’s dog-eat-dog, lightly regulated labour market. Most are underemployed or unemployed. They are poorer than they were, probably less happy than they were and, across the board, they are isolated rather than included.

Even if you look at it in a bean-counter fashion, these suddenly unemployed workers are quite probably “costing” the State more in terms of health need, entitlement to benefits and lost taxes than the “£25,000 per year per Remploy employee” that reformers trumpeted so negatively. And that is even before you factor in the various ‘prices’ of wellbeing, self-confidence, a sense of identity, feelings of belonging and socio-cultural inclusion.

From a left of centre perspective, closing down a network of publicly supported opportunities for people living with disabilities is a bad idea – politically, socially, morally and economically. The demise of Remploy is a shameful tale, but one that clearly illustrates the mean spirited ‘neo-liberal consensus’ that continues to poison our body politic.