Can Labour start a different conversation about benefits?

Rafael Behr

By Rafael Behr – 07 March 2012 14:25

The public is very far away from embracing some of the ideas about the welfare state that social democrats hold dear.

The Labour Party faces a terrible dilemma dealing with the politics of welfare.


That is one conclusion I took away from an event last night, run by the Fabian Society and the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), that I was lucky enough to chair.

The focus of the evening was a presentation by David Brady, associate professor of sociology at Duke University in North Carolina. Respondents on the panel were Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of the CPAG and Stephen Timms, shadow employment minister.

Brady’s presentation distilled some of the arguments in his book Rich Democracies, Poor People: How Politics Explain Poverty – a comparative international study of the relationship between welfare systems, poverty and inequality.

At the risk of doing violence to Brady’s thesis, I think I can summarise the gist as follows: spending on social security works. Countries that have higher welfare spending have lower rates of poverty. What is more, the wider social dividend of that outcome creates a positive feedback loop, building more consent for generous state support. By contrast, countries that develop a political discourse based on individual responsibility as the determinant of life chances – essentially the argument that personal failings, bad lifestyle choices are what hold people back – end up less equal and with more poverty. What is more, the cost of paying for that social failure (e.g. in increased crime and incarceration) outweighs the cost of a generous welfare system.

It was pretty compelling and, not surprisingly, popular with the Fabian audience. Much of the ensuing discussion focused on the political challenge of communicating these truths, held to be self-evident, to a sceptical British population. The Tories, it was argued, cheered on by the media, have successfully convinced the nation that money spent on benefits is being squandered, subsidising idleness.

Labour’s job, by extension, should be rebutting those myths, defending universal benefits and robust state intervention to alleviate poverty. Stephen Timms did a valiant job of agreeing broadly with the moral consensus in the room, while delicately pointing out that the vast majority of the electorate are in a different place and that, under what was euphemistically referred to as “difficult financial circumstances”, simply spending more on welfare was not on the agenda.

There was not much appetite in the room, I sensed, for a discussion of tough political choices presented by the obligation to bring down the budget deficit. No one raised the point in the audience. Only one person raised the question of whether it might at least be politically expedient to accommodate people’s perceptions that there is inherent unfairness in the way benefits are currently paid out – sometimes appearing to reward inaction and penalise work.

It was, for the most part, a refreshing and insightful discussion, serving as a necessary corrective to some of the assumptions about the ineffectiveness of welfare spending that seem rapidly to be congealing into a political orthodoxy. That said, some recognition of Whitehall’s woeful record of innovation and productivity in social spending would have balanced things out a bit. Not for nothing did ministers in the last Labour government complain (in private) that the money they were spending was “bouncing off” the bottom 10 per cent of recipients.

I came away distinctly pessimistic about the prospects for Labour developing a coherent position on this stuff. A Fabian Society audience is a very particular crowd, but often representative of the intellectual mood of the party. If last night’s discussion is anything to go by this is very, very far away from the political mood of many people whose votes the party needs. Most Labour MPs I speak to recognise this problem. Their constituents are lapping up the government’s tough rhetoric on welfare. The holy grail for Labour is a position that reassures the public that the benefits system is fair, not wasteful, rewards effort, does not offer something for nothing, while also meeting the high moral demands of activists who think any accommodation with Conservative language on this theme is craven capitulation to the forces of darkness. 

Liam Byrne, shadow work and pensions secretary, is due to make a speech on Friday in which he tries to advance Labour’s position. The thrust, I gather, will be that the welfare state, as originally conceived, was based on expectations of full employment and that any renewal of the welfare state should have the same goal in mind. The attack on the Tories is that they are dismantling social security, aiming to chase people off benefits and into work, but without honouring the implicit promise that there is work to do. This strikes me as sensible terrain for Labour to be marching on. As I argue in my column for the magazine this week, the government’s failure to address unemployment and the likely bungling of reforms that are meant to make work a more attractive option than benefits will start to turn the tide of opinion on this issue. Labour can only capitalise if it has a clear position – and if it is united behind that position. That last point poses the greatest challenge.

5 thoughts on “Can Labour start a different conversation about benefits?

  1. susan jones says:

    sometimes the role of government is too NOT pander to populist issues, it is perhaps about time we saw some positive role modelling from our so called leaders. Funny how governments can claim the popularity of something like the welfare reforms on the one hand, but then totally disregard the unpopularity of the health and social care bill on the other. I mean pubic opinion either matters or it doesn’t, seems to me Governments cherry pick opinions anyway simply to justify what they want to. I doubt that many people would wish to see the sick and disabled suffer through the ATOS assessments, the subsequent invalidated experience of their illness and disability, the callous removal of their means of living, appeal, and then …another ATOS assessment. Most reading this will know the drill already. But the work fare protests paid off, except that the public seem totally unaware that those in the ESA WRAG are now going to be expected to do unlimited work experience. Bearing in mind that to qualify for ESA in the first place, you have to provide evidence from a doctor that you are unfit for work. Most ESA claimants have had to take matters to a tribunal appeal. Those claimants in the WRAG are still deemed unfit to work by a doctor and usually a tribunal, so why why why do the Government think it’s ok to sneak the work fare in here? And where are the public protests for the sick and disabled? Oh yes, such indignation has been dispelled by the myth of the fraudulent scrounger. Irresponsible people who viciously scapegoat minority groups ought never be allowed to govern a Country, I mean, take a look at what happened in Nazi Germany….

    The ASBO and “visible policing” policies for me simply confirmed that politicians don’t do the positive role modelling behaviours. Rather than explain to a misguided public that young people’s crime was more likely to be directed at other young people, the Labour Government chose instead to fuel public fears ( even though they were totally unrealistic statistically speaking) and make the situation worse by increasing visible police presence and creating community environments that were very young people unfriendly. So much for inclusion policy.

    I don’t think Labour will engage in rebuilding the shattered welfare system. The party doesn’t seem to have the political courage for that. I totally agree that it would be the best investment in the long term, but no one seems interested in consequences, intended or otherwise, any more. Just pop policies. Maybe the reintroduction of hanging will be the next proposal….!

  2. L S McKnight says:

    Could Labour change the attitudes to welfare reform? NO but we could.

    Labour could do worse than ask for organisations such as Black Triangle, We Are Spartacus, DPAC, those who authored Responsible Reform to take responsibility for developing a policy on Disability. DO NOT allow the ‘professional’ disabled rights groups to run it – many of them are considered as being almost as bad as the DWP.

    In other areas of welfare find similar groups with expertise in health, unemployment, education, housing NOT PROFESSIONAL charities.

    Set up working groups at your end with people who are trusted such as Anne Begg. Provide the technolgical support network to allow regular teleconferencing eg an intranet with access to any documents needed enough bandwidth and storage space and all the other technical paraphernalia.

    Provide the necessary specialists who can cost proposals so that ideas are rooted in the feasible.

    Everything must be evidence-based, no more Ministers making it up as they go along.

    Whilst these discussions are ongoing you should also have a means whereby the Labour Party working groups can be contacted by those you’ve co-opted so that, for example, whenever a minister says something that’s wrong a correction can be out within hours if not minutes.

    You can’t change the discourse because you brought in ATOS, you designed tests that are dangerously inadequate, you started the demonisation ‘It’s not if we catch you it’s when’, you have a front bench of millionaire PPE Obridge graduates almost indistiguishabel from the Tories.

    Take a back seat and reintroduce socialist principles – let those who are affected design the policies you put into effect

  3. JJ says:

    Rich Democracies, Poor People: the politics of welfare
    in partnership with the Child Poverty Action Group

    Tuesday, March 6th, 6pm – 7:30pm
    Grimond Room, Houses of Parliament

    Thank you to all those who attended this event.

    Author David Brady’s findings have suggested that a key determinate of poverty levels in developed nations remains public spending on the welfare state. Brady contests that poverty campaigners need to push back against the prevailing notion that poverty is an inescapable outcome of individual failings or a society’s labour markets and demographics. On the other hand, while Labour remains committed to ending child poverty by 2020, Ed Miliband has recently suggested that you cannot spend your way to social democracy and has advocated a return to the ‘something for something’ contributory aspect of welfare.

  4. susan jones says:

    The ONLY way forward is engaging in dialogue with Black Triangle, DPAC et al.regarding policy making, I totally agree

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