Where now for Labour on welfare?

3rd January, 2012 9:57 am

Leaked quotes from a future speech by Liam Byrne – in which he denounces the ‘evil’ of‘scrounging’ – have caused an online storm amongst Labour supporters.  Understandably, many of us are bewildered and disappointed by the leadership’s apparent pandering to right-wing prejudices about the welfare state.

The furore caused by Bryne’s comments about benefit recipients raises profound questions about where the party as a whole stands on welfare reform.  Out of all the Coalition’s policies, there is a widespread sense that it is on welfare reform they are most ‘in tune’ with public opinion.  This has enabled Osborne to introduce huge and profound cuts to the social security budget, with troubling consequences in stow for those reliant on welfare for their economic survival.

This apparent sync between the Coalition and the public on welfare has led Ed Miliband into what many on the Left view as a spineless, deeply unimaginative position on welfare reform.  Few of us genuinely believe that Miliband believes what he says about welfare, but that he does so out of a desperate, perhaps even cowardly, desire to appeal to mainstream public opinion.

But where should Ed Miliband and Labour be on welfare?  For many on the Left, there is still a considerable stream of support for a universal, social rights approach to benefits: i.e., unconditional social security provided as of right and based upon need.  But this is an untenable position, for two reasons.

First, there is – I think – a desirability to some form of welfare conditionality.  While the workfare approach of the Coalition is certainly of a punitive nature, not all forms of conditionality need be so.  As the political theorist Stuart White has argued, a certain structure of conditionality – which White labels ‘fair reciprocity’ – can be conducive in achieving social democratic aims of cooperation, social inclusion and mutual contribution.

Second, the public is so far away from supporting a universal, social rights approach that even if this was a desirable approach, to advocate it would be political suicide.

This means that it is not a question of whether or not Labour supports conditionality, but what formof conditionality it advocates.  As numerous academic studies have shown (such as Lodemel and Trickey’s and Dageurre and Etherington’s), active welfare can take multiple forms.  Welfare activation is naturally about carrots and sticks – but political parties have choices about how much carrot and how much stick to use.

In the early days of the New Labour era, welfare reform took a qualitatively different form to what it did towards the end.  The New Deals were about developing a well-financed, social investment approach to unemployment as opposed to the later obsession with sanctions and threats.  Equally, back-to-work help for harder to reach groups – like the disabled and lone parents – was much more about client-focused, personalised support than it is today.

This is the kind of approach to welfare reform which Ed Miliband should build upon.  Yes, we must support a degree of conditionality to ensure norms of reciprocity and contribution.  But we should also advocate a much more intensive programme of support for those looking for work; one which seeks not just the goal of quickfire re-employment, but that of ensuring benefit claimants get the right skills training and simultaneously remain social included in their communities during times of economic isolation.  Genuinely supporting those in need is a much richer Labour tradition than the craven benefit bashing we have witnessed under Ed Miliband.

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