Lessons for Labour from Little Rock, Arkansas

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.


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4 Responses to “Lessons for Labour from Little Rock, Arkansas”

  1. Nick says:

    Pretty much spot on.

    The problem for Labour is that you are responsible for the failures. No one trusts you to fix that. Why should you go to a glazier to fix windows, when they are the ones throwing the bricks.

    So what’s missing?

    1. No statement as to what is owed. (7,000 bn)
    2. No statement as to what that means for individuals (225,000 of debt, per taxpayer)

    Since the median worker can’t afford that debt, then the debts won’t be paid. So pensions will be defaulted on.

    What you need to be talking about, is who takes the hit for Labour’s mistakes. The problem there is that your class warfare attitude is resulting in people opting out of the state system. Harry Rednapp is just a small example. Companies are moving. You’re going to get 50-60% of very little.

    There are no policies from Labour on growth, bar the hope that some growth will solve everything. So its borrow at 5%, to get growth of 2%. That shows financial illiteracy, and a simple conclusion that you aren’t fit to run a whelk stall.

  2. aragon says:

    There is everything right wing about fiscal conservatism, just going to the US is a move to the right of Labour, even the left in the US is to the right of most British politics.

    Welfare is working properly, it is the economic failure and lack of jobs that creates welfare dependency.

    Crime is another social consequence of economic failure as is the dishonesty making the headlines.

    “Debt payments are the price to be paid for past failures, not down payments on a brighter future.”

    Yes another economic failure.

    “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.”

    No, you are framing Fiscal Conservatism as a solution, when it is a straight jacket clung to by the defeatist.

    We can’t change the world, just tinker around the edges. Don’t present failure to act as a solution, what is more important people or economics.

    Economics should serve society not the other way around.

    Fiscal conservatism, is a comfort blanket, for the myopic, the people lacking vision and the who accept rote learning.

    It is a cop-out!

    Typical of the current Labour leadership.

  3. On signing off his welfare reform act Bill Clinton said – “Today, we are taking a historic chance to make welfare what it was meant to be: a second chance, not a way of life.”

    These words did not resonate over here though, especially under Brown’s stewardship of the economy and as the defeat of the welfare cap in the Lords two days ago has shown, they still don’t entirely resonate where some are concerned.

    People in general are now recognising that welfare largesse really is part of the economic argument. which is why a Labour party that is looking to regain its credibility with the electorate needs to recognise this fact in turn. The problem is the leadership, the leadership-in-waiting and the whole of the front bench are all associated with past failures in this respect and a majority of the people outside of the Westminster bubble know it.

  4. oliver says:

    The only real alternative to the ‘welfare system’ is jobs. The removal of the welfare system *without* jobs is merely callous scape-goating. The same can be said of the Miliband-supported ATOS assessments which often defy belief.

    I certainly agree with any argument that work can provide dignity and self-respect as well as the respect of others. However, none of this will come about throughout meaningless ‘workfare’, and it *is* meaningless.

    The workfare that’s being offered to long-term unemployed only provides relevant experience in those particular fields: shelf-stacking in the likes of Poundland. Aside from ‘soft skills’, what is actually learned in this kind of job? Is there anything that couldn’t be learned just from a 2 hour induction? If not, why the need for actual experience doing this? Will there be jobs at the end of the workfare? Unlikely as Poundland and similar now have a conveyor belt of ‘free’ labour straight to their doorstep through the same scheme!

    All workfare does is appease the ‘I work so they they should too’ crowd, even though the majority of them wouldn’t work for the £2.25 an hour that equates to workfare themselves.

    There’s also weird opinion that it’s purely the fault of the unemployed that they don’t have the right skill set for work. You can only get *recognised* training and education if it’s actually on offer and accessible/affordable, yet year-on-year this has got harder and harder to find for most ‘mature students’, especially if you’re already out of work. I know from experience that the waiting lists for trade-based courses have run into years at my local college.

    As for younger school leavers, whilst they’ve a large part to play in what grades they achieve, what they actually learn in school is generally out of their hands. One year it’s ‘back to basics’, the next it’s all about sports and arts academies, then the next it’s ‘why is it our kids barely know any history and what happened to Latin?’

    We’re seeing a massive cull in office-based work in both the private sector and public sector (the latter, more so) and yet, all too often the local Job Centre seems intent on sending people on short-term computer-based office-skills course that are usually regarded as ‘pointless’ by employers. Never mind, I suppose it helps massage figures even if it doesn’t actually help the claimant.

    So, what exactly is being proposed here other than ‘Hey, you! Yes, you without a job. Get a job and you’ll be glad you did in the long run.’

    To ‘reform’ (read: remove most of it or make the hoops to jump through even smaller) welfare without having the jobs there first doesn’t seem like “empathy” or “achievement” to me. It doesn’t even sound like you’d be listening to the people in this predicament. In fact, quite the opposite, it sounds like you’re only really listening to people lucky enough to be *in work* who begrudge any kind of welfare system. Although, to be fair, the way this economy is going many of this latter group will soon be part of the former and they may temper their beliefs somewhat (especially when they realise that a life on unemployment or disability benefits isn’t all 80 inch plasma TVs and foreign holidays).

    Here’s a suggestion, instead of just making job hunting a requirement for claiming JSA, why not make it a requirement for people to be in some kind of worthwhile training and education at least one day a week? And, here’s the kicker, actually provide that training and education. It doesn’t matter how old they are or what they’ve done in the past or what they want to do, have them expand that skill set. But not with shelf-stacking but with real maths and English, real trades courses etc.

    This will then undermine protestations that people have to be brought in from abroad to fill skill shortages. It will undermine the idea that ‘dole scroungers’ sit on their arses all day not doing anything productive. It will get people into a routine as much as any forced workfare shelf-stacking. It will also provide “achievement” and “dignity” as well as confidence etc. far more than workfare would.

    However, as it stands, Jonathan, you’d be probably more honest if you rewrote your final sentence so it reads:

    We should only need to do that which is at the root of Clinton’s genius: listen to our voters (but mainly the floating centrist voters who will vote Tory some years and Labour some others, depending on how much you want to join the Tories in the ‘it’s the unemployed’s fault!’ hectoring).

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