Labour gives up fighting giants

The Labour party doesn’t hate the welfare state like the nasty Tory party. No, no. The Labour party just hates what the welfare state has become. If only it hadn’t strayed from the first principles of the 1942 Beveridge report, we’d be free from the dread perils of “scroungers” and “benefit dependency”, which the Labour party would like you to know it hates very much indeed – hates more, in fact, than the Tories ever could.

That’s the content of a strategic leak to the Mail, trailing a speech later this month. The subtext, of course, is a rank desperation to be seen as “tough”. “Please take us seriously as a party of government,” it wheedles. “We’ll just govern the shit out of the people you don’t like.” And who do we not like? The workshy. The idle. The people who take without putting in. This isn’t about fighting the five giants, it’s about turning a nation against itself.

Labour’s collection of enemies is a convenient one, because no one would ever self-identify with it – whoever you are and whatever your reliance on government services, Labour only wants to punish other people. These others have somehow perverted the welfare state from its original function and exploit it at the expense of decent and hardworking folks: “The benefits system has expanded in a way that Beveridge would never have foreseen,” an anonymous aide tells the Mail. “He would be turning in his grave if he knew we spend £20 billion a year on housing benefits.” (There’s no mention of whether Beveridge’s imagined shock is before or after that figure has been adjusted for 70 years of inflation, or how that might affect the ratio of spins per quid.)

The idea of limiting the welfare state to what seemed possible or politic the best part of a century ago is a similar sort of inanity to that practised by American constitutionalists, who want government limited to the strictest interpretation of the founding fathers. It’s not even automatically obvious what the welfare state includes, as Nicolas Timmins found when writing The Five Giants: A Biography Of The Welfare State. “The phrase… suffers the drawback of being static, as though ‘the welfare state’ were a perfect work, handed down in tablets of stone in 1945, never to be tampered with,” Timmins writes. “As an entity it does not exist – it is a collection of services and policies and ideas whose boundaries expand and contract over time. It can never, at any one moment, be said to have been assembled or dismantled.” (The Five Giants, p. 7.)

All three of the UK’s main political parities have locked themselves into a contest to offer the narrowest (and cheapest) possible conception of the welfare state: if Labour are promising to take us back to 1942, how long before the Tories volunteer to take us further? And if they succeed, perhaps we will after all be able to point to the moment the disparate marvel of the welfare state was finally dismantled.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012; cartoon © Mirror Syndication International, reproduced for commentary

5 thoughts on “Labour gives up fighting giants

  1. Beveridge might have justifiably assumed that governments would, over the ensuing decades, alleviate the need for Welfare programs. Not unreasonable when you think about it.
    However, successive mismanagement, or outright vindictiveness, has created an increasing need for Welfare support in the Uk. It is Governments which have created the problem, not the claimants who have been squeezed, reluctantly in many cases, into reliance.

    One classic example of the sheer stupidity of Govt Policy is to allow/encourage Private landlords to fill the gap in Housing provision. Here we have have a new investment opportunity for those with idle cash, to receive grants and subsidies to provide a room or a house for those who can not buy one, or rent one from the depleted stock of Local councils.

    Naturally enough, and to encourage takers, this was an unregulated market, with very little regulation on standards of accommodation, heating, sanitation and comfort.
    It wouldn’t come as a suprise to anyone that as rents increased, that the ‘subsidy’ required by tenants that actually enables them to live in these properties, went up.

    As if this was all not folly enough, the ‘solution’ to the cost crisis, put forwards by David Cameron was to cut the ‘subsidy’ believing that Private landlords would reduce their rents to match.

    It is the most cynical of approaches to a Housing shortage, because it hits those who have no choices and allows Private Landlords to continue to maximise returns in what remains a totally unregulated market.

    Beveridge would be crying in disbelief at the sheer lunacy of it.

  2. Beveridge’s ‘vision’ was significantly diluted almost immediately, he saw no need for means testing but of course that quickly had to be added in the form of National Assistance.

    Those who invoke Beveridge always conveniently forget that he designed a system for a different time. he would be far less shocked about the cost of Housing Benefit than he would be by the changes to community care, the changing role of women in society and family structures. All of these place different demands on the welfare ‘system’. When retirement pensions were first introduced you weren’t expected to need them for more than a couple of years. Now, you can expect to live as a pensioner for 20 years and more than half the benefits bill is spent on pensioners.

    He might also be concerned that a large part of the reason Housing benefits costs have risen so much is down to the dismantling of council housing and the reliance on the private rented sector and Housing Associations.

    But you’ve totally nailed it when you ay that it’s only the ‘others’, those undesirables ‘over there’ who aren’t ‘decent’ types like ‘you and me’. This is essential to attract support, to make an obvious point and is a trick as old as the hills. It’s frightening how many fall for this and assume that they will never find themselves in the the tangle of the ‘safety net’ and thus become a viable target.

  3. It is a deeply dispiriting spectacle. You are right that Labour seem to be joining the Tories in ‘othering’ those in receipt of benefits, in order to reduce resistance to policies that would be considered degrading and inhumane if they were being applied to ‘us’.

    I agree with the comments above. The point about Beveridge and housing benefit was particularly fatuous. Post WW2 we witnessed governments seeking to outdo each other in the scale of their house building programmes and the speed with which they could improve the living conditions of the poor. A national system of housing allowances only arrived in the 1970s, and housing benefit in 1983. It only really became significant after the 1980s when social rents were raised and and private rents deregulated. The HB bill is high because entire basis of policy has switched from subsidizing people not prices. Feeble and (now) collapsed new housing supply sustains high prices. To then turn around and kick the people because they are being subsidized is pretty crass.

  4. What I find so depressing is that there seems to be no party prepared to adopt different strategies. Of course the welfare system has bloated in areas that have been ignored for the sake of expediency. Inevitably it should be pruned in some areas and encouraged in others. This is called good management and has been lacking in many socioeconomic policy areas in UK. Surely these years of austerity are an opportunity to consider how to do things better. This may involve less money and demand that people take responsibility for their actions. It may involve government using funds to encourage activity rather than dependence. That is not to say that all those dependent on the state now are work-shy wasters – many are in genuine need and some have been pushed into dependency by the state itself. However, anyone working in the public sector will know of people who swing the lead/ know how to play the system, and they are just as bad as bankers, lawyers and CEOs who spend their lives looking after number 1.

    I think the Labour party ought to be asking itself what it can offer the people of UK. What are it’s roots? Just as it is perfectly reasonable for them to re invent the party, it is perfectly reasonable to reconsider the welfare state. However any changes should be made because they improve the service to the needy ( whether that be lifetime care or a controlled push towards independence ) rather than because they are cheaper. Unfortunately, politics is now regarded as a career and fiscal responsibility is seen as the way to float to the top of the mediocre pile, rather than passion or idealism. Wouldn’t it be great if a politician actually made a stand because of what they believed? The days of knowing what is right and making it happen because it is the right thing to do have made way for the days when our politicians are content to tweak the system at the behest of the mob. Unfortunately systems don’t take account of human ingenuity, whether it be the invalidity benefit scrounger or the tax evading banker. That is why we are in this mess.

Comments are closed.