Contribution and compassion – are these the key to Labour’s approach on welfare?

27th February, 2013 9:25 am

There was an interesting piece by James Kirkup in the Telegraph last Friday that didn’t get much attention, but should have, on the possibility of Labour proposing a link between benefit levels and work history. Kirkup’s piece said that:

“Jon Cruddas, the party’s head of policy, is considering a shift in the party’s approach towards what he has called “a fair contributory welfare policy” where people who have worked get higher payments than those who have not.”

My understanding is that this idea is being “actively discussed” at the top of the party, with many of those close to Ed Miliband seeing the value of such an idea. However, rather than this being some sort of “skivers” rhetoric from the party, the arguments in favour of the policy are based around the aim of rebuilding support for the welfare state. A regularly used example is that of a 50 year old who has worked their whole life, and the idea that they should get more support to recognise that, as a way of rebuilding “social solidarity”. This already happens in other countries – for example in France unemployment benefit is based on a percentage of your previous salary over the past 12 months.

However there are legitimate concerns about how this would play out in practice. With youth unemployment nearing one million, anything which cuts back support to hundreds of thousands of young people who are largely out of work due to no fault of their own – forcing them to rely further on existing family support (if they have it) is problematic at best and fundamentally unfair at worst. Such a system might only increase the gap between the baby boomers (who received the full support of the welfare state) and everyone who came after (who are feeling the squeeze, whilst being expected to pay for those who came before).

There are also concerns with regard to how such a system might impact the long-term disabled and carers, who are often unable to work for any significant period of time (if at all). That’s perhaps where the second “c word” of Labour’s new approach to welfare might come in – compassion. Cruddas has railed against “the culture war around the demonisation of the welfare recipient” and said when I interviewed him last year that “we cannot lose our compassion in this process, or we’re dead, as a political party”. In a lecture at the Centre for Social Justice a few months ago, he said:

“We are in danger of becoming a disconnected society, a people who feel a sense of loss and a politics driven by anger and grievance which bleeds away compassion and our shared humanity.”

Nothing better represents the loss of society’s compassion and shared humanity than our approach to the disabled, who are forced to go through demeaning and degrading tests of dubious worth, only to be told that their (often life threatening and restrictive) conditions weren’t serious enough to keep them from work. Society (fuelled by the media and desperate politicians) labelled them “scroungers” – bracketing those who couldn’t work in with those who wouldn’t and failing to make adequate distinction between the two.

Fortunately, Labour’s approach in 2015 and beyond looks like it will be different. Thanks to the work of disability campaigners (Sue Marsh and Kaliya Franklin deserve particular credit), the plight of disabled people and the inadequate help and support they receive is now on the agenda in Westminster. As well as Cruddas choosing to take this piece from Marsh for his recent One Nation pamphlet (a step forward in itself), Liam Byrne has also been making many of the right noises, writing in the New Statesman recently that:

“we need a radically new approach to disability policy so that government actually puts a team behind disabled people helping them get on in life, not a bureaucracy against them locking away help.”

A society that recognises contribution but also shows compassion to those who are unable to work could (and should) be Labour’s approach to welfare in the coming years. It offers a way to rewarding hard work whilst also supporting those who need the welfare state the most (and often have suffered at the hands of it), and gives the party a fighting chance of winning back support for the welfare state without harming those who need its support. But for such an approach to work, youth and long term unemployment will need to be tackled too.

And that’s an even greater task still…

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