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Laurie Penny: The Paradox of the Welfare State

Aversion therapy for the poor.

Centuries ago, when ordinary men and women first began to dream of political suffrage, a radical theory surfaced whereby people without property or assets had as much right to a living as anybody else. Thomas Paine wrote in 1795 that every citizen should expect a minimum income as compensation for the "loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property." That notion has this week been utterly abandoned by the British administration.

Tomorrow, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will announce a new "contract" with the poor. Those receiving the miniscule and dwindling stipend that the government grants anyone without means to support themselves in these straitened times may be required to toil for the state, for free, or face being shoved off benefits.

This isn't just a Tory scheme. James Purnell, who tried to pull the same trick under Labour in 2009, has spoken of a "covert consensus" whereby, with true Vietnam war logic, it has become necessary to destroy the Welfare State in order to save it.

As strategies for tackling poverty go it's not subtle. In fact, it's roughly equivalent to a quack doctor plastering a typhoid sufferer with leeches or cutting a hole in a patient's head to cure a migraine. This trepanation of the welfare system is supposed to "get Britain working" by returning the poor to the "habit" of nine to five labour -- alongside savage cuts to housing benefit and Jobseeker's Allowance that will apparently "incentivise" them towards work that isn't there.

It's the Victorian aversion-therapy theory of poverty. Iain Duncan Smith, along with a sizeable chunk of the press, seems to have convinced himself that forcing low-paid or unpaid citizens to work for nothing or face homelessness and starvation will somehow snap them out of their beastly little "habit" of not having any money. It's a reimagining of poverty as a social disease that can be cured with shock treatment, rather than the inevitable result of years of profit-driven policymaking that have systematically neglected the needy and vulnerable.

The London Evening Standard's Matthew D'Ancona lovingly reports that Duncan Smith believes that work is "bigger than the idea of earning money." I'm sure that for him, with his personal assets of over £1m, work is less about the money than about the satisfaction and status of being one of the most powerful men in the country. For your average call centre or shop worker having to beg the boss every time they need to use the loo, though, paying the bills is precisely what it's about.

We keep being told that relentless work is good for us. The expectation that all people "of working age" should spend 45 hours a week performing pointless tasks in small cubicles for someone else's profit while cramming unpaid housework and childcare into the remaining time is only a very recent function of late capitalism, but conservative myopia would have us believe that this cruel and unusual process is somehow normal. If ordinary people begin to crack under the strain of trying to survive on ever-lower wages in an ever more insecure and debilitating job market, well, they're just not tough enough. They're layabouts and scroungers and they must be made to do more work for less pay to jolly well shake them out of it.

It's about control. It's always about control. When they say that work is good for us, what they mean is that work keeps us in line. Work makes us behave. Work makes us obedient and beaten and isolated and grateful. If that's the new definition of "the national interest", then we need to think harder about what sort of nation Britain is becoming.

How did this happen? How did we start tutting along when government spokespeople decry the fact that people on social security "expect money for nothing," rather than pointing out that this, in fact, is rather the purpose of a welfare state at a time of high unemployment? That the term for the phenomenon whereby people expect money in return for something is, in fact, employment? That if there's caring, cleaning and community work to be done, perhaps the state should be offering the people who do it a real living rather than barely-disguised contempt?

These welfare reforms are the next step in an ideological assault on ordinary workers being deployed by social conservatives of all parties and none who wish to protect the reputation of capital by blaming the financial failings of the rich on the moral failings of the poor. Believe me when I say that I really, truly wish it were going to work.

It's occasionally satisfying to see one's political enemies embark on the mother and father of all cock-ups, but not this time. Not when real lives are at stake. When these reforms inevitably fail, when the welfare system currently providing a rotten bandage for the old infected wounds to British industry, housing, wages and mental health care is finally ripped away, people I love are going to be left bleeding.

I don't want to watch this country become colder, crueller and more savage. I want to believe that Duncan Smith knows what he's doing. Unfortunately, what he is doing is approaching the problem of poverty with the same concerned brutality with which a Victorian doctor might approach a distressed patient: all she needs is a good hard slap and some ice water therapy and she'll pull herself together in no time. It might seem harsh, but a chap's got be cruel to be kind.
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Trade unions must change or face permanent decline

Union membership will fall below one in five employees by 2030 unless current trends are reversed. 

The future should be full of potential for trade unions. Four in five people in Great Britain think that trade unions are “essential” to protect workers’ interests. Public concerns about low pay have soared to record levels over recent years. And, after almost disappearing from view, there is now a resurgent debate about the quality and dignity of work in today’s Britain.

Yet, as things stand, none of these currents are likely to reverse long-term decline. Membership has fallen by almost half since the late 1970s and at the same time the number of people in work has risen by a quarter. Unions are heavily skewed towards the public sector, older workers and middle-to-high earners. Overall, membership is now just under 25 per cent of all employees, however in the private sector it falls to 14 per cent nationally and 10 per cent in London. Less than 1 in 10 of the lowest paid are members. Across large swathes of our economy unions are near invisible.

The reasons are complex and deep-rooted — sweeping industrial change, anti-union legislation, shifts in social attitudes and the rise of precarious work to name a few — but the upshot is plain to see. Looking at the past 15 years, membership has fallen from 30 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2015. As the TUC have said, we are now into a 2nd generation of “never members”, millions of young people are entering the jobs market without even a passing thought about joining a union. Above all, demographics are taking their toll: baby boomers are retiring; millennials aren’t signing up.

This is a structural problem for the union movement because if fewer young workers join then it’s a rock-solid bet that fewer of their peers will sign-up in later life — setting in train a further wave of decline in membership figures in the decades ahead. As older workers, who came of age in the 1970s when trade unions were at their most dominant, retire and are replaced with fewer newcomers, union membership will fall. The question is: by how much?

The chart below sets out our analysis of trends in membership over the 20 years for which detailed membership data is available (the thick lines) and a fifteen year projection period (the dotted lines). The filled-in dots show where membership is today and the white-filled dots show our projection for 2030. Those born in the 1950s were the last cohort to see similar membership rates to their predecessors.

 

Our projections (the white-filled dots) are based on the assumption that changes in membership in the coming years simply track the path that previous cohorts took at the same age. For example, the cohort born in the late 1980s saw a 50 per cent increase in union membership as they moved from their early to late twenties. We have assumed that the same percentage increase in membership will occur over the coming decade among those born in the late 1990s.

This may turn out to be a highly optimistic assumption. Further fragmentation in the nature of work or prolonged austerity, for example, could curtail the familiar big rise in membership rates as people pass through their twenties. Against this, it could be argued that a greater proportion of young people spending longer in education might simply be delaying the age at which union membership rises, resulting in sharper growth among those in their late twenties in the future. However, to date this simply hasn’t happened. Membership rates for those in their late twenties have fallen steadily: they stand at 19 per cent among today’s 26–30 year olds compared to 23 per cent a decade ago, and 29 per cent two decades ago.

All told our overall projection is that just under 20 per cent of employees will be in a union by 2030. Think of this as a rough indication of where the union movement will be in 15 years’ time if history repeats itself. To be clear, this doesn’t signify union membership suddenly going over a cliff; it just points to steady, continual decline. If accurate, it would mean that by 2030 the share of trade unionists would have fallen by a third since the turn of the century.

Let’s hope that this outlook brings home the urgency of acting to address this generational challenge. It should spark far-reaching debate about what the next chapter of pro-worker organisation should look like. Some of this thinking is starting to happen inside our own union movement. But it needs to come from outside of the union world too: there is likely to be a need for a more diverse set of institutions experimenting with new ways of supporting those in exposed parts of the workforce. There’s no shortage of examples from the US — a country whose union movement faces an even more acute challenge than ours — of how to innovate on behalf of workers.

It’s not written in the stars that these gloomy projections will come to pass. They are there to be acted on. But if the voices of union conservatism prevail — and the offer to millennials is more of the same — no-one should be at all surprised about where this ends up.

This post originally appeared on Gavin Kelly's blog