At a time when more workless people in the UK are being mandated into highly conditional welfare to work programmes, this article engages with critiques of neoliberalism to argue that such policies cannot be shown to have a major impact on outcomes but are pursued for political reasons. Through a systematic review of the assumptions underpinning current welfare to work programmes in the UK, it is suggested that policy has increasingly been driven by a desire to embed a new consensus in which it is accepted that life should be shaped by work and that the unemployed have responsibility for tackling their own unemployment. This consensus marginalises the voice of the workless and wider criticisms of neo-liberalism and reduces the scope for oppositional political organisation. The analysis indicates three areas where contestation and broader study will be important in the future to protect the well being of the unemployed. They are: welfare reform and the attempt to shape the whole welfare system to embed a work ethic; the demand side of the labour market including requirements on employers; and the empowerment of the unemployed
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