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Governing Skills, Governing Workplaces: State-steered Voluntarism in England under New Labour

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  • Political Science


This thesis examines the Skills Strategy for England under New Labour as a contested project to govern workplace high(er) skill aspiration and behaviour. It analyses differentiated state strategies to promote and (re)produce responsible skills ambitions; the engagement of employer and employee representatives with these strategies to stretch and reshape, and resist and restate the project; and the implications for skills provision. The research involved interpretive analysis of policy documents, and in-depth interviews with policy-making elites; strategic representatives of business and worker/learner interests; and skills providers. To support my empirical focus this thesis is located within theories of the changing form and function of the state. Adopting a ‘cultural political economy’ approach, and drawing on critical governance studies, to illuminate the interplay between meaning production and practice, I challenge the conclusion that mechanisms for skills creation in England are premised on a misunderstanding of the skills motivations of employers and employees. Instead I expose state work through policy to produce and export a skills logic; constituting and positioning governable subjects in relation to their internalisation of these logics; and the role of differentiated policies to manoeuvre subjects towards preferential skills behaviours. The findings highlight that what is presented as a coherent ‘partnership’ approach to producing enhanced skills can be better understood as three distinctive state strategies, (demand-led; leading demand; circumventing lack of demand) , which are aimed at differently imagined and constructed workplaces, (enlightened; inert; or deviant), depending on their demonstrable degree of responsible skills ambition. I therefore term this project ‘state-steered voluntarism’. However, I also expose the limitations and limits of this project. Attempts to present policy coherence lacquers over latent tensions and contradictions between the different skills strategies, creating policy ‘opacities’ which serve as spaces for the strategic voices of employer/employee representation to talk back; disorganising the practices and processes of skills delivery.

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