by Jonathan Todd
The main gallery of Bill Clinton’s presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas, which I visited last month, contains sections on the various achievements of his presidency. The first three to greet visitors are on deficit reduction, crime and welfare. Too often, these are considered right-wing issues. But Clinton counts them amongst his proudest achievements.
His autobiography recalls that he was “always somewhat amused to hear some members of the press characterise (welfare reform) as a Republican issue, as if valuing work was something only conservatives did”. Peter Watt has recently reasserted on Uncut the value that Labour places on work, not avoiding work, which should be reflected in our approach to welfare. Those who can work should be incentivised to do so; those who can’t should receive the support they need. In other words, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.
Rather than appealing to the slogans of Karl Marx, Clinton’s autobiography justifies his concern with welfare in terms of the real life experiences of Lillie Hardin. She had moved from welfare to work under a scheme introduced by Clinton as governor of Arkansas. He invited her to give evidence on her experience to a governors’ meeting in Washington and asked if she thought able-bodied people on welfare should be forced to take jobs if they were available.
“I sure do,” she replied. “Otherwise we’ll just lay around watching the soaps all day.” Then Clinton asked Hardin what was the best thing about being off welfare. Immediately, she answered, “When my boy goes to school and they ask him, ‘What does your mama do for a living’? he can give an answer”. Which Clinton claims is the best argument he has ever heard for welfare reform.
Giving people the pride and ladder out of poverty that comes with work must be the point of welfare reform. Of course, government has a responsibility to ensure that jobs exist to be taken by those on welfare, which this government is presently failing to do. Equally, government has a responsibility to ensure the dignity of those who can’t work, which, as Left Foot Forward recounts, is another responsibility that this government is neglecting.
But there is nothing socialist about a welfare system that traps the able-bodied out of work for years. For some households this has amounted to decades of squandered potential and mounting frustration. That’s why Paul Richards is right to say on Labour List that the welfare system isn’t working and to support Liam Byrne in arriving at a Labour alternative to this failing status quo.
This failure is recognised and understood by the people Labour seeks to serve. And properly listening to such people is a precondition of any common sense socialism. Without a finely tuned ability to listen, Clinton wouldn’t have had the qualities that marked him out as a politician: empathy, effectiveness, achievement. Through shaking hands with waiters and kitchen staff at a fundraiser in New York for his 1992 presidential campaign, and listening to their stories, Clinton was reaffirmed in his commitment to tackling crime as president.
“My nine-year boy”, a Greek immigrant worker told Clinton, “studies the election in school and he says I should vote for you. If I do, I want you to make my boy free. In Greece, we were poor but we were free. Here, my boy can’t play in the park across the street alone or walk down the street to school by himself because it’s too dangerous. He’s not free. So if I vote for you, will you make my boy free”?
As in New York in 1992, so it is in Britain today and the world over, the poorest suffer most from crime. When Labour tackles crime we make life better for those that most depend on Labour. And as Matt Cavanagh recently illustrated on Uncut, this is a government supremely complacent and devoid of ideas on tackling crime. If Yvette Cooper is to rise to her somewhat ill-fated status (ask James Purnell) of being fancied as Labour leader by the Spectator, then, “Labour’s iron lady” must exploit this. At the same time, her husband, Ed Balls, must show an appreciation of the kind of logic that nearly caused Clinton to run in the 1988 presidential race.
As Clinton notes in his autobiography, President Reagan’s defence spending increases and tax cuts for the rich had driven up the deficit, which “led to high interest rates … Moreover, because of the budget deficit, we weren’t investing enough in education, training and research required to maintain high wages and low unemployment in the global economy”. There is, as In the Black Labour begins, nothing right wing about fiscal conservatism.
Debt payments are the price to be paid for past failures, not down payments on a brighter future. They are minimised by prudent fiscal management, which unlocks resources to be invested for tomorrow, such as jobs to be taken by those on welfare and police officers to keep our streets safe.
There is, indeed, nothing right wing about fiscal conservatism. Nor is there about public policy that honours work, while providing dignity for all, and which liberates communities from the scourge of crime. We shouldn’t need to go to Little Rock to learn this. We should only need to do that which is at the root of Clinton’s genius: listen to our voters.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.