The post-compulsory education and training system in the UK has long been defined as an archetypical voluntarist model. Yet, with the election of a New Labour government in 1997, the relationship between the state as supply-side provider of skills and employers as the demanders of skills began to subtly change. An additional rhetoric emerged in skills policy that suggested a role for the state to shape higher skills demands. This instigated a move towards what is here defined by the oxymoron ‘state-steered voluntarism’; an approach to the governance of skills which aimed to deliver both a demand-led skills system and a system to lead demand. Drawing on policy documents and interviews with key policy-makers, this article offers an interpretive analysis of New Labour’s ideas about the nature of workplaces, and the role of the state and skills providers in response, that explains the existence of policy paradox. We find that New Labour articulated three distinct strategies for governing skills, depending on whether workplaces were perceived to have ‘good’, ‘bad’, or frankly ‘ugly’ skills aspirations. However, whilst this threefold skills strategy seemingly served the 25 purpose of containing multiple policy objectives and creating a graded role for state action, it was also prone to being used selectively by those with vested interests in UK skills policy (i.e. the representatives of businesses and employers and the representatives of employees and learners).
- Skills policy; governance; New Labour; skills demand and supply