Mandate my Ass
In writing about ‘Jobseeker Mandatory Activity’ I’m going to start with a building, and not just to conform to type. In the dead centre of Lewisham is the former Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society's Tower House, built in 1933, a redbrick and white tile department store, with reliefs of trains, liners, the motifs of local industry, the work that was most likely painfully absent in that depression year; inside was a department store for those, like my Grandma, who would get their schoolclothes from the Co-Op and thus be regarded as ‘common’. Nonetheless, loudly holding the borough’s dead centre, the Lewisham RACS was clearly a thumping affirmation of collective, working-class pride. It’s façade-deep. Follow it round the back to find concrete & stock-brick warehousing, snaking round to link up with what is now a Bowling Alley. The RACS building was chopped up into individual franchises: a Yates’s (with SKY SPORTS INSIDE promised), a branch of Fitness First, and at the back, through the warehouse entrance, Twin Training, a private purveyor of education and ‘training’. This is the company to which the (unusually bluntly named) Mandatory Activity has been contracted out. ‘It’s by the bowling alley’, they told me at the Jobcentre, as that’s a better marker than the RACS’ towering (but seemingly invisible) monument to solidarity.
JMA, if you will, is a scheme being ‘tested’ in selected areas of the nation – South East Wales, Warrington, Lanarkshire, South East London (prizes for guessing what links these). At Lewisham Twin, JMA will, according to the bumph, entail ‘upbeat motivational training’. So the image of the Restart counsellor, encapsulated beautifully in The League of Gentlemen’s Pauline, doesn’t quite apply here. The JMA is something a little more insidious. Certainly no-one here is being treated with the casual contempt that Pauline doles out, or that anyone who has waited in line at a ‘JobcentrePlus’ (or tried to walk into one without conferring sufficently with the newly contracted heavy-duty security) gets subjected to. This much is clear when our host – earnest, Nigerian, lanky, clearly very good at his job – declares to us that we should regard the Mandatory Activity as a break, even though it is compulsory, on pain of loss of an already piddling income. ‘Think of it as being like a management training course’. He introduces himself in the third person: ‘Anthony is a person who values people.’
There’s around 25 of us, all men bar five women, one of whom disappears after the first day. Many are people in their 40s, 50s who have worked most of their lives as electricians, shepherds (!) or even lawyers and find employment unsurprisingly tricky to return to. Only one or two conform even remotely to the archetypal hooded malingerer that haunts the dreams of MailLand. So, we get a couple of ‘games’ in groups, such as the ‘you are one of a group who are sole survivors from an aeroplane which has crash-landed in the Indian Ocean on a flight from Cape Town and Karachi. You have managed to get into a life-raft, what personal effects will you throw out’ one, but what the Mandatory Activity really entails is listening to an experienced exponent of managerial tosh wax motivational for three days. Perhaps the best bit is the mnemonics. We’re handed a sheet of paper headed ‘STAYING ON TOP WITH SWOT ANALYSIS’. SWOT being Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. In the midst of the discussion of Swot analysis another is thrown out: GROW, which is made up of Goal, Reality, Options, Will. While we’re taught how to GROW, we’re handed out extracts from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Later, another mnemonic explains that, in interviews, ‘you have to communicate STAR in order to be the Star’. That’ll be Situation, Task, Action and eventually, Result.
The ostensible point of all this is to get us into work by helping with our apparent lack of confidence and social graces, explaining the alleged obstacles that led to our being unemployed for an extraordinary six months. Our host, who lays proud claim to pioneering, when back in Nigeria, 'the project Building Your Tomorrow Today' and a book entitled You Can Make It, repeatedly stresses the importance of three things: Service, Values and Vision. Every job is a service. All organisations provide a service. All organisations have values, and visions. You too have values and visions, you just have to match yours with the organisation’s. Curiously enough, rather than demystifying, the motivational training makes the grimly mundane world of work (Southwark Pest Control is one of the examples we are given) into a baffling, messianic world of entrepeneurs sharing with each other their visionary visions and their valuable values. ‘Anything you want to do, you can do it’ (I quote) is the plainly stated philosophy, a bizarre mismatch with the data entering, painting-and-decorating and benefit-claiming that lies in wait for most of us here. People are mostly bored but relieved by the lack of the Jobcentre’s more obvious inhumanity. That’s still very much here, of course. Someone turns up late for the third day, and the jobcentre are swiftly informed. The stark possibility of weeks without income. In the world of vision, punctuality is brutally important. ‘You must be the master of time’. (again, I quote)
Central to ‘JMA’ is an individual ‘Action Plan’ for each one of us to take back to the Jobcentre and whisk into work, handed out at the course’s end. We’re first given these to fill out ourselves, though the oh-so-efficient private contractors manage to lose some. Regardless, the end result is a chart with cuttings and pastings from internet job sites for each of us to take home. So the only concrete part of the whole thing is the pep talk, and here, in true market Stalinist style, ‘cadres decide everything’. There’s none of Pauline’s dismissal of the ambitious, or the proverbial careers officer’s admonition that you give up space travel for the sausage factory. We can, all of us, make our dreams come true. Right at the end, as everyone hurriedly picks up their travel expenses, we’re told that we’re not to be seen here again. ‘I will next see you…’ ‘On TV!’ someone interjects. ‘As an entrepeneur!’ He’s impressed. ‘An entrepeneur, that’s the aim, isn’t it’. We might all be living on a pittance, but by god we’re going to make it, now that we’ve realised that all that holds us back is our lack of vision.
So at the end of a mercifully brief three days we all walk out, not noticing that this has all taken place in a building once devoted to the now quaint belief that profit might not be the only possible ‘motivation’. Remember the mnemonics, aim high, hold onto those values, and soon enough SE London will be awash with the exploited shedding their collective chrysalis and floating away as exploiters, as long as their benefit isn’t cancelled first.