Friday, 20 June 2014

Why Ed is wrong (again) on welfare

Andrew Fisher

I've written previously about why social security was the reason for me developing my heartfelt hatred for the Tory Party. Like millions of others, I am where I am due to social security, and I feel a particularly deep dislike of those who would vilify that system.

It's hard not to share a similar animosity for the Labour Party at the moment. Every time you think the legacy of Purnell and Byrne parroting bigoted Tory bile about welfare is being consigned to its rightful place in history's dustbin, it springs up from the garbage can like a Sesame Street puppet.

Yesterday was another example and the excellent John Millington (@Johnjournalist on twitter) has written a wonderful blogpost on what's wrong with it.

I won't attempt a second rate imitation of that post, but here's why I think Ed's policy announcement was all wrong.

You won't convince people Labour is tougher on welfare than the Tories ... and you shouldn't f***ing want to

People who are hostile to the whole concept of the welfare state vote Tory. Labour created the welfare state. It's one of its proudest achievements. It reduced destitution, poverty, malnourishment and underachievement - and still does.

If people want someone to give a kicking to those on welfare they will trust the Tories to do it more efficiently. They've been doing it for years and are frankly better at it.

Not only does this strategy fail to win over sceptics but it loses Labour its own voters and supporters. It's morally vile and electorally counterproductive too.

Rights are better than the contributory principle

Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas have both been vocal about increasing the contributory element of the social security, and emphasising its role.

This is wrapped up in the clothes of William Beveridge - the Liberal architect of the post-war welfare state. But the contributory element of welfare was always partial - the insurance was called 'national insurance' - us as a nation collectively, not individually, insuring ourselves against illness, disability or unemployment.

But Miliband and Cruddas have been using this negatively - to strip away rights from the young who, precisely because they are young, have no record of contribution. And therefore will have their benefits means-tested (if they don't have A-levels) and will be sanctioned if they don't take up training.

Adults shouldn't be means-tested on their parental income. If they're old enough to work, pay tax and vote then it's ludicrous that they should still be treated like they are dependent upon their parents. Young people deserve dignity and independence - and they need those to be enforceable rights.

But then shouldn't we all have a right not to live in  poverty - and a right to an independent dignified life? And that's whether or not we have been able to contribute through employment.

Education, education, education

Labour should be in favour of more education, more training and of people developing their skills. Primarily we should favour for this for reasons of human liberation. Education broadens the mind, develops our critical faculties and gives us confidence and greater life choices. Making ourselves more valuable in the labour market is a valuable secondary outcome, but it should be just that. We should encourage education and training for its own sake.

Young people don't need sanctions to take up training. If it's in their interests and will further their job prospects they will take them. The need for 'tough' rhetoric is futile. Labour should be emphasising what it will be offering people by way of support and training, and acknowledging that the person best-placed to judge what will help is the young person themself - it's called respect.

So offer young people training, give them an allowance while they're at college, on a course, learning a skill - but don't strip people of their benefits if they want to carry on looking for work and turn down the training on offer.

It's jobs, not skills that we lack

The other problem with what Ed proposed was that it assumes the reason we have high youth unemployment is due to a lack of skills among young jobseekers. In fact our economy is increasingly becoming low skill, low wage and low productivity. In fact we are wasting the talents of many people who are overqualified for the mundane jobs they do. The main jobs shortage in the UK has actually been for a long time for unskilled work. So it's skilled jobs, not skilled young people that are lacking.

That is a major problem that needs addressing, but reshaping our economy and labour market would take a courageous politician - not one who cowers before the Daily Mail or The Sun - and gets tough on young unemployed people at a time when four people are chasing every vacancy.

Why rob children to fund childcare?

A proposal that went under the radar a bit yesterday was the proposal to freeze child benefit to pay for extra childcare. Reports differ as to whether Labour is likely to adopt the proposal.

But the real question is whether an additional childcare commitment should be funded by taking money away from the already depreciated child benefit - a universal benefit with a much better take-up rate than means-tested benefits like child tax credit.

Why not fund increased childcare for families by increasing general taxation, or hitting the wealthy with increased capital gains tax, inheritance tax or even a mansion tax - or indeed by cutting truly wasteful expenditure like Trident.

The Labour Party that pledged to scrap the bedroom tax is the Labour needs to find its voice on the benefit cap, sanctions and workfare too. Labour can cut social security spending (as I've argued before), but this pathetic capitulation politics which reinforces right wing narratives is vile and will prove counterproductive.


Russell Miler said...

At one time the Labour Party Policy was determined by the membership, not by a Sun reading, Mail fearing, opportunist

PeterMartin said...

We've got to get away from the "we can't afford it mentality. If we could afford free health, free education, and still have full employment in the 60's when there was less money around we can afford it again now.