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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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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.