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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Labour's Eurosceptics should steer clear of loaded language

Phrases such as "wholesale importation" leave the impression Labour will not speak for migrant workers.

Nothing reflects Britain’s division over Brexit than the Labour party. Do we want soft or hard Brexit? What do we prioritise? The fractures within the party’s ranks is a portrait of the divisions splintering the country.

Labour’s ambiguity over Brexit helped it in the general election in appealing to everyone. It convinced Remain voters that they could hold the Tories to account while promising the Leave voters that the referendum decision would be respected. But now clarity is needed. 

The Labour leadership seems to be angling for a hard Brexit, wishing to leave the single market and customs union on the grounds that this honours the wishes of the 52 per cent. Ironically, they are at odds with everyone in this situation, from the general public – who favour access to single market over immigration controls – to a poll in LabourList showing that 72 per cent of readers prioritised inclusion within the single market.

Jeremy Corbyn's lukewarm attitude to the EU is well documented. If the Labour Party are serious about their public ownership plans for the railways and energy, it’s likely they envision it being made difficult within the EU because of directives which create competition between the state and the private sector. There are unexplored alternatives to this, as seen in Germany and Italy where private companies are made and run the industries with the states acting as the major shareholders of the company. However it’s unlikely to see the hard left ever accepting this, given its disdain for both the private sector and the idea of it interacting with the state to deliver services.

But this is not all that should trouble progressives regarding the Labour leadership’s stance on Brexit. During a recent Andrew Marr programme in which he appeared on, Corbyn claimed that mass immigration had been used to denigrate the conditions for British workers, saying that there was a “wholesale importation” of workers from parts of Europe which would then undermine the rights of British workers. It’s an argument that has been regurgitated by British politicians consistently in recent years – but from the right, not the left.

The idea that migrants are taking British jobs and depressing wages does not hold up to evidence at all. The London School of Economics carried out a research which illustrated increases in migration from the EU did not result in depression of British wages. That’s not to suggest that wages have not stagnated, but rather the trend is linked to the financial crash in 2008, rather than migration. Corbyn’s defenders insist that there were no deliberate racist overtones in his argument, and that the villains are employers deliberately taking advantage of an easily exploited labour market. But the manner in which Corbyn framed his speech was worrying.

The reason for this is that Brexit has created an unbelievable sense of uncertainty, insecurity and fear amongst migrants. Their position in society is now being contested by politicians with different stakes in society to them. Xenophobic abuse – legitimised as an acceptable part of political discourse by Brexit – has been climbing swiftly. Immigrants are seen as threats to British jobs and that is a narrative consistently drummed out – not just since last year but for possibly the past decade.

This is not to say that Labour should not address how some employers might seek to cut costs by hiring foreign workers on a cheap rate. But phrases such as “wholesale importation” or even using the heavily demonised “mass migration” simply sketches the idea that Labour are swinging towards the hard Brexit voters, and in doing so leaving migrant workers to be defended by no one. If the intended idea was to castigate employers, it simply entrenched the idea of immigration as a problem. Rather than bringing British and migrant workers together, you know with that whole “workers of the world unite” idea, Corbyn’s framing of the argument keeps them pitted against each other.

If Brexit has shown us anything it’s that language matters in politics in how it transmits its message to people. Slogans such as “take back control” were attacks on multiculturalism and immigration, stoking white nationalism, even if the Leave campaign insisted it wasn’t about that. Likewise, Corbyn might insist it wasn’t about migrants, but his message sounded a lot like he was blaming freedom of movement for the suppression of wage growth in Britain.

Needless to say, Labour need a rethink on what kind of Brexit it pursues.