A call to arms for Labour on welfare reform

Does Labour want to rebuild the model of the liberal welfare state or try something different?

Today the Welfare Reform Bill returns to the House of Commons to debate the amendments won in the Lords. To mark the occasion, Soundings journal publishes an e-book, Welfare Reform The dread of things to come. It is written by people who have spent years bringing public attention to the impact of welfare reform on the most vulnerable people in society.

Like the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the Labour governments's 2009 Welfare Reform Act was provoked by a moral panic about the feckless poor, and the rising cost of welfare payments. Labour appeared unaware of the squeeze on wages for the bottom half of the working population. Globalisation and the economic boom were not trickling income and wealth down, they were spiralling upward to a small elite. Rising living standards for lower paid families were being sustained only by private borrowing and the growth in women's jobs. The result was growing indebtedness and increasing pressure on individuals and domestic life. Popular resentment toward people on benefits was being stoked by media stories of a dependency culture of welfare cheats. Rising immigration fuelled feelings of unfairness and resentment toward the political class and fed into the clamour against benefit scroungers.

Like the Poor Law, the target of welfare reform was the able-bodied worker who was considered to be shirking his or her duty to work. But Labour and coalition governments excluded the health dimension of the out of work problem. The large number of people living with limiting long term illness and its impact on individuals and their employability was not properly taken into account. It was politically expedient to focus on the supposed moral failings of the individual claimant, and the assumption that, contrary to the evidence, very large numbers were simply avoiding work.

A questionable evidence base and political calculation meant the design of welfare reform was organised around increasing conditionality. The lack of jobs, the inappropriate nature of many jobs for sick or disabled people, the considerable employer resistance to taking on the mentally or physically unwell, were downplayed in favour of a punitive approach to claimants. Like the poor law, welfare reform has ended up punishing the sick and disabled.

In the House of Lords, Labour has succeeded in defeating the government in a series of amendments. But this success masks a problem. Labour peers sprung a litany of amendments but they lacked a shared ideological project about the kind of welfare system they wanted. There was concern for fairness and compassion, a heartfelt fear of the impact on children, and awareness of the spectre of homelessness. But what kind of welfare system does Labour stand for? It seems to boil down to the Conservatives' system but a bit nicer here and there.

Whatever compromises emerge, the larger questions about the future of our welfare state remain. Labour will need to rethink its approach to welfare or risk being sucked into the political slipstream of the Conservatives. It will find itself assenting to measures and then qualifying its assent. It has a political problem because people do not know what it stands for and because it is viewed by many as being soft on welfare. It can never resolve its identity crisis nor sustain longer term popular support by trying to out-nasty the Tories.

By the time the Poor Law came into effect with its workhouses and principle of less eligibility hostility toward the poor had already peaked. Its cruelties and humiliations became notorious and it was met with considerable public resistance. A similar pattern is already emerging around welfare reform and its harsh and humiliating treatment of people who are ill or disabled.

Does Labour want to rebuild the model of the liberal welfare state or try something different? The question needs serious consideration. Beveridge's liberal legacy does not look politically robust today. It is not succeeding in protecting the most vulnerable. It risks being undermined by profit-seeking companies. Its safety net is mean and tattered. Who wants the impoverishment of the Job Seekers Allowance or the humiliation and fear of the Work Capability Assessment? Unlike the NHS, the welfare system lacks public support: in hard times and over longer periods of time, large fractions of the 80 per cent lose their sense of obligation toward paying for the needs of the twenty per cent.

In the coming period of austerity, welfare will be a critical political issue. The challenges of labour market volatility, of the soaring cost of pensions and an aging population, of a tax system in need of redesign, and of restructuring capitalism for wealth creation and jobs, might be better met with a reciprocal, contribution-based system of social insurance which ensures protection and is more politically robust. But it must be one that hard-wires compassion into its structure for those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to contribute. It will involve a massive change, perhaps one that is politically impossible given the liberal traditions of welfare in this country. But the present system is failing and the political prize for changing it would be enduring and historical. The call belongs to Labour, with its traditions of popular mutual aid and reciprocity.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.