by Peter Watt
Gulp, here goes. I think that if the reports that Liam Byrne, with the full support of Ed Miliband, is to shortly announce a change in approach to benefits policy are correct, then he is spot on.
Over the last 30 years Labour has moved from being seen as a party that supports labour, working people, to being seen as a party of welfare dependency supporting those who do not work. It may be uncomfortable to say it, but it is certainly held to be true by millions of voters. It’s not hard to see why. So you are struggling to make ends meet, balance work and home, and life feels tough. You play by the rules, pay your taxes and yet you can’t afford to fill the car up anymore. Then you will understandably find it galling that some people seem to be able get by whilst choosing not to work, never mind working hard, don’t pay any tax and still get their slice of the growing welfare cake. Hell, that cake is paid for from your tax, and the amount of tax you’re paying just keeps going up.
There is of course some truth in how disgruntled voters feel. The number of those in receipt of welfare payments has risen steadily over the last few decades. While it was not all the result of Labour policy, we certainly played our part. And here is the dilemma for Labour. You could argue that it is a sign of our success that we have increased the number of benefits available to poorer members of society. That would certainly reflect one strand of thought within the party. But to argue this is all about playing to our own consciences.
The problem is that we haven’t brought with us those whose work generates the taxes to pay for the welfare payments (that play to our consciences). We have created incentives for some to remain on welfare payments rather than work. And the bill for the state to pay the welfare payments just keeps going up and up. None of these is sustainable, and none was the intention of Beveridge when he established the welfare state.
So politically we cannot afford to allow ourselves to continue to be portrayed as a party that favours those on welfare over those who work. And the current system is unsustainable, as it incentivises some people to choose not to work at the same time as the bill to the State keeps rising. So what is to be done? Well I hope that Liam Byrne establishes some Labour principles.
1) People who are in receipt of welfare payments are not “scroungers” and the use of this sort of language is not helpful. It panders to prejudice, rather than tackling the underlying problem and is not where Labour, as a party of social justice, should ever be. Not accepting this language is not however the same as understanding that some people feel this.
2) There are benefits for those who are temporarily unable to work, who need supporting and ultimately helping back into work or to stay in work. And there are benefits for those who are not able to work at all. People in the latter category, those for instance who have a disability that makes work impossible, and who have no other means of support, should be supported by the state come-what-may. The extent to which we do this is a measure of the sort of society that we believe in.
3) People who claim benefits that they are not entitled to, or who abuse the system in order to avoid work, undermine the system for those who are entitled to benefits. Does this mean that we are allowing notions of the deserving and undeserving poor? Yes, too right we are. If you can work and choose not to, then you do not deserve to be supported by those who are working. And we should not be ashamed to say so or to clamp down on them. Allowing people to live a life on benefits if they are able to work is not only unfair on tax payers it is also immoral. It condemns thousands to a life of poverty, kills aspiration and can all too easily become inter-generational.
4) People should expect to have to pay something for the benefits that they receive. We all understand how insurance works – you pay a premium so that if the insured event occurs you can claim. If you have never worked and never paid tax then you should not expect to be able to claim. Does this mean that there shouldn’t be a safety net? No. But it certainly means that it should be just that – a safety net with limits. If you have paid your premium, then you should expect to be reasonably supported. But this support should be linked to expectations that you will endeavour to move off benefits as soon as you are able.
The current government should be praised for attempting to tackle the welfare state. Our welfare system should be something to be proud of, a sign of a mature economy that provides support and protection to those who have finished working and to the most vulnerable. And insurance for those who are able and willing to work, but need help. Instead it has become something that fails many of those who rely on it and angers many of those who pay for it. Labour should not be caught on the wrong side of this argument. The Duncan-Smith reforms are not perfect by any means. We should be arguing for greater protection and dignity for those who are unable to work. We should be demanding that people have to contribute before they can claim. And we should be condemning those who choose not to work and are undeservingly in receipt of benefits that those of us who are working have to pay for.
I just hope that when Liam Byrne outlines Labour’s approach to welfare reform that he and Ed stick to their guns, and that isn’t just a tactical manoeuvre. They have both said similar things in speeches over the last year, so the signs are good. They should stick to their guns because they are right.
If they don’t, then while we will still be called the Labour (supporting) party, many voters will see as the idle (supporting) party.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.