The bias towards traditional welfare threatens social justice

Rather than defending existing social security entitlements, politicians need to mobilise public support for a new set of social investment priorities.

Reinforced by the wave of austerity following the financial crisis, a new Policy Network/IPPR report shows that social attitudes to welfare are overwhelmingly biased towards a small ‘c’ ‘conservative’ view of the welfare state – implying protecting higher pension payments, social security entitlements, and public expenditure on healthcare. On the other hand, public support for welfare state policies that are geared towards tackling new social risks – relating to structural changes in labour markets and employability, demography, gender equality and family support that traditional protection systems are poorly equipped to provide – is relatively weak. This is the great dilemma at the heart of the politics of the welfare state, which the present debate about welfare reform in the UK scarcely addresses.

In the ongoing discussion about the future role of the state, defending existing social security entitlements, rather than targeting investment at families and children is the public’s preferred option in many European countries, as new comparative polling data from Britain, France and Denmark highlights. Negative sentiment towards growth-oriented, social investment policies in education, active labour markets and family assistance is occurring at a time when slower growth and productivity are increasing the pace of de-industrialisation among developed economies, to the advantage of the emerging powers. The evidence is that shifting expenditure towards these growth-oriented strategies would help to build human capital and increase the capacity for innovation, while supporting the ‘gender revolution’ in paid work and household labour.

Since 2009, every type of welfare regime, including Germany, Sweden and the UK, has chosen a path of budget consolidation that is leading to severe cuts in social investment as a response to the financial crisis. If we consider the survey data on public attitudes towards the welfare state, it is possible to infer that this is merely a rational response by vote-seeking politicians: it is easier to cut back on "family-friendly" service-oriented aspects of welfare rather than healthcare and pension entitlements, as older citizens are more likely to vote.

This preference for the "traditional" welfare state over growth-oriented social investment policies that enhance equity gives serious cause for concern. Growing inequalities in electoral participation might further entrench the welfare status quo, heightening the risk of intergenerational inequality. Given that electoral participation in advanced democracies is falling quickest amongst the young and least affluent, better off and older votes are able to have a greater influence in the political process. For example, spending cuts in the UK have had a disproportionate effect on the young and poor –two groups that tend to have the lowest voter turnout, while universal benefits for the elderly have been largely untouched.

Indeed, support for the ‘traditional’ welfare state is strongest among the more influential cohort of older voters. In Britain, these voters are most likely to support the NHS (51 to 37 per cent), state pensions (44 to 13 per cent) and policing (36 to 18 per cent) as major public expenditure priorities. Conversely, they are less likely to support increased investment in primary and secondary school education by 16 to 32 per cent, and support cutting back maternity and paternity benefit by 37 to 15 per cent compared to younger voters. 78 per cent of Britons and 80 per cent of French voters believe that social protection for families is already more than sufficient. The diverging support for "traditional" welfare provision and a "social investment state" between young and old voters reflects a political context in which the population in many EU member states is getting older, and voters over 50 are most likely to vote.

Worryingly, the financial crisis seems to be consolidating support for ‘old’ welfare state structures at a time when social investment to tackle ‘new’ social risks is of great importance. Europe’s welfare states should be adapting to conquer new structural challenges, which currently pose a major threat to future equity, growth and social sustainability. The biggest threat to social justice in Europe is not institutional change, but the frozen welfare state landscape, perpetuated by the support of major interest groups that are able to control how welfare states operate. Politicians need to show leadership in order to mobilise public support for a transition to a different model of welfare capitalism based on a new set of social investment priorities, looking ahead to the next decade and beyond.

Patrick Diamond is senior research fellow at Policy Network and co-author with Guy Lodge of European Welfare States after the Crisis: changing public attitudes

Students protest against the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) outside Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.