Miliband's welfare plan deserves the left's support

His plan to reward those in work is a reaffirmation of the founding principles of the welfare state.

Despite the headlines it has attracted this morning, Ed Miliband's plan to give workers priority over the jobless for social housing is not a new one. In the fine speech he delivered on responsibility in June, Miliband promised that Labour would be "a party that rewards contribution, not worklessness." He cited the approach of Manchester which, as well as helping the most vulnerable, gives priority to those who contribute the most to their communities, be it through volunteering or employment, and those who have been good tenants in the past.

In his speech at 2:15pm today, he will say: "The hard truth is that we still have a system where reward for work is not high enough, where benefits are too easy to come by for those who abuse the system and don't work for those who do the right thing." His ambition is for the entire country to emulate the Manchester model: "Our first duty should be to help the person who shows responsibility, and I say every council should recognise the contribution people are making."

Miliband's bid to put the contributory principle back at the heart of the welfare state hasn't been welcomed by all on the left. It is viewed by some as a reassertion of the crude distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Buth both Lloyd George and Beveridge regarded the contributory principle as essential to preserve fairness, increase work incentives and maintain public support for the welfare state. Neither believed in a "take what you can" approach. As Beveridge put it in his 1942 report: "The correlative of the state's undertaking to ensure adequate benefit for unavoidable interruption of earnings is enforcement of the citizen's obligation to seek and accept all reasonable opportunities of work." (Although, of course, he assumed a system of full employment, hence the title of his second report in 1944: Full Employment in a Free Society.)

It's important to emphasise that Miliband isn't calling for the state to relinquish its duty to protect the poorest. Fears of workless families being evicted from their homes are wide of the mark. But he is proposing a radical reordering of our social contract. He recognises that an approach that focuses on need alone risks reducing the welfare state to an American-style safety net for the poorest. Miliband should now go further and take up James Purnell's proposal to extend the contributory principle to pension provision. Those who pay in should receive a higher pension than those who do not.

Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, recently observed that "Labour is behind on welfare reform. It must get back in front". Miliband's vision of a system that rewards those who give the most, rather than simply those who need the most, offers one way to do so.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.