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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle