Who cares about the poor? David Cameron says the Conservatives do. Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, is worried that the Tories are not simply raiding Labour territory, they are declaring war on its reason to exist. Through 100 years of disputes about what Labour is or should be about, Field says, "most have agreed that [it] exists to protect and advance the interests of the poor". That consensus is now open to question.
The Welfare Reform Act 2009 received royal assent last November. There is no better time than now for the centre left to ask itself a few difficult questions about its relationship with the poor. In the final vote on the bill, the Commons rejected Lords amendments that sought some protection for the most vulnerable. Those who are sick, even very ill, will be expected actively to seek work, or face sanctions. Sanctions also apply to mothers of very small children and to those suffering serious mental illness. But the biggest shock to those who campaigned for a more humane approach to welfare reform was the silence of the labour movement. Was this through lack of interest, or tacit support for the measures?
Government ministers rigorously defended the bill, claiming that William Beveridge would have approved of it. This is wrong. Beveridge described his 1942 plan as "in some ways a revolution, but in more important ways it is a natural development from the past". The revolutionary part broke with the ruling welfare ideology and created a "new type of human institution". Beveridge called it "social insurance", which implies both that it is compulsory and that "men stand together with their fellows" by pooling risks. The implementation of this universalist principle and its ethic of
solidarity was an exceptional event in British history. The Welfare Reform Act undermines both the principle and its effect.
Yet there is some truth in the government's argument. The rhetoric of welfare reform is in keeping with some of the "natural developments" that influenced Beveridge, including the idea of an "undeserving poor" and the belief that it is the dysfunctional behaviour of the poor that is responsible for their poverty. The punitive treatment of Incapacity Benefit claimants and the belief in the curative powers of work have their roots in the late-Victorian idea of a "social residuum". New Labour revived a disciplinary approach to welfare, concerned with controlling rather than supporting individuals.
Its intellectual lineage - represented by figures such as Thomas Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, the late-Victorian social investigators, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb - is steeped in a technocratic and rationalist notion of progress. Its driving ethos was not so much social justice as that the "degeneracy" of the poor got in the way of the efficient drive towards a perfect society. Sidney Webb railed against the falling birth rate and feared that the country would fall "to the Irish and the Jews".
Beveridge was a member of the Eugenics Education Society, set up in reaction to the threat of "degeneracy". Its "first object", wrote its founder, Francis Galton, "is to check the birth rate of the unfit instead of allowing them to come into being . . . The second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the fit by early marriages and the healthful rearing of their children." In his 1907 pamphlet The Problem of the Unemployed, Beveridge argued that men whose "general defects" make them "unemployable" should be made "dependants of the state". In return, they must pay with "complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights - including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood".
Labour has historically lacked the political ideology to counter the legacy of utilitarian, disciplinary welfare. Its own political culture has been imbued with the Puritan work ethic. As Richard Tawney has argued, 17th-century Puritanism prepared the way for capitalist civilisation and brought with it a new punitive attitude towards the poor. Labour, like the wider social-democratic tradition, has been unable to build a counterculture that can offer an alternative ethics of living and working. As a result, it has colluded in distinguishing morally between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor.
History has shown us that economic crises generate middle-class panics about a "dangerous" underclass and its racial and sexual transgressions. In the 1980s, the new right embarked on a project to theorise an underclass in Britain. It drew on the work of the American political scientist Charles Murray, whose research had revived eugenicist debates about race and intelligence. Murray was invited to Britain by the Sunday Times in 1989 and his ideas were taken up by Digby Anderson's Social Affairs Unit. The American academic Lawrence Mead was also influential in reviving the belief that poverty was about behaviour and dependency, rather than economics and justice. The problem was not environment, but individual failing. The work of the new right laid the foundations for New Labour's welfare reforms.
The government calculated that it could triangulate the Conservatives and subject the underclass to punitive measures without alienating Labour's core supporters. Its refrain of "hard-working families" attempted to codify this division. But the so-called underclass is not a class apart as the new right and the social investigators of the 19th century tried to prove. It is an imagined body of people - chavs, hoodies, junkies - projected on to single mothers, the sick and parts of the working class impoverished by the impact of recession and unemployment.
Welfare reform has generated insecurity beyond those it has targeted. It has helped to create support for the BNP among low earners who fear the same abyss of unemployment and culture loss. The government's treatment of the poor has become an electoral liability. Statistical evidence about the numbers taken out of poverty will not undo the distrust and the feeling that Labour is "not on our side". How will Labour rebuild its base?
The centre left needs answers. The Tories discuss recapitalising the poor, while the government can only talk about harsher penalties. Across Europe, centre-left parties associated with the neoliberal transformation of the nation state are paying a heavy political price.
In Germany in 2002, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) launched the reform of the benefits system with its "Hartz IV" laws. The introduction of greater conditionality speeded up the downward trend in the party's electoral support. Membership collapsed and its working-class base deserted it. Oscar Lafontaine exited to form the Left Party, culminating in the SPD's catastrophic defeat in last September's federal elections. New Labour has followed a similar path. It must face the possibility of similar losses to its support come the election.
Jon Cruddas is the MP for Dagenham
Jonathan Rutherford is professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University