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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.

Tags:Welfare