Saturday 8 June 2013

Labour and Rebuilding Social Security

Look, I get it. No one needs to tell me that the antipathy towards the unemployed, the disabled, and anyone else forced to subsist on social security payments has been carefully but repeatedly orchestrated for over 30 years. Labour have historically not just gone along with the collective hounding of benefit recipients; during its time in government the party led from the front. We also know the demonisation that has poured uninterrupted from our establishment like a waterfall of filth from a stinking effluent pipe have consistently talked up recipients as scroungers who shamelessly ponce off the taxpayer. Hence we have a situation where 72 per cent believe "too many people were able to claim benefits who should not have been entitled to do so", some 0.7 per cent of payments are estimated to be fraudulent. You'll not hear many politicians suggest that, as a proportion of GDP, the social security budget has more or less remained constant.

The media and governments past and present don't mislead over social security. 

They lie.

Their propaganda isn't widely believed because people are stupid or that the media is all-powerful. It gets traction because it chimes with a lot of working people's experiences. There is always one person in every family, every friendship group, every community that - without any evidence beyond perception and gossip - is strongly suspected of being a dolewaller or lead-swinger. For my mum, it was the bloke down the village on the social with a bad back who was on the take. For a disabled guy I recently helped out, it was the youths sat around Longton town centre of a weekday morning smoking and necking cans of Carling. And for younger folk I know, it's the one who seemingly sits in their bedroom all day battling orcs on on WoW. The majority go to work to provide for themselves and their families, so the idea there are others who do nothing and live a "life of riley" off their backs exercises a negative pull on the popular imagination. Who, after all, wants to be taken for a mug? So you can understand why "truth-telling", tales of hardship, and stat-mongering has barely shifted public attitudes. And, unfortunately, it is not likely to do so in and of themselves.

The crisis facing social security is not an issue of economic sustainability or public finances. It's a political crisis, but that does not make it any less real. The question we, as socialists or social democrats have to ask is how can popular consent be rebuilt for a social security system whose very legitimacy is questioned by the same working people it was founded to help?

Enter stage left Ed Miliband, with this week's important speech on this very topic. Important, as this is the shape of what's to come should the polls bear out and Labour wins in 2015. And also because it represents a marked shift from the policy deadweight bequeathed by New Labour.

Contrary to what some have been writing, the revealed social security policy orientation is not a swing to the right. A lot of this stuff has been trailed for a long time, and it's miles better than anything James Purnell led on. Nor do I accept it's a capitulation to neoliberal austerity (of which more another time). Ed's One Nation schtick is communitarian and rests on social contract thinking - everyone enjoys certain rights, but along with them come certain obligations. Hence, this approach to social security affords payments to those who need it provided they meet their responsibilities, such as seeking appropriate work or attending regular meetings with the relevant DWP advisor. On society's part, in addition to making basic subsistence payments it will, under these plans, provide a guaranteed job for the long-term unemployed - on pain of sanction. This we have already seen.

On housing, Ed will give local authorities the power to negotiate on the collective behalf of private tenants to set rents. Effectively a rent cap by another name, monies saved from the housing benefit budget will be ploughed into council housing. And on the scandal of tax credits or, as it should be known, low pay subsidy; Labour also expects private sector providers of government contracts to pay the living wage and set this as a public sector 'minimum wage', and 'shame' companies into paying their staff decently. Zero hour contracts are out, too.

On top of announcements addressing joblessness, housing and tax credits come the controversial bits. First, the idea of a cap on social security spending. And second, reintroducing a contributory element.

Capping spending. Well, you might as well say cutting spending. But not all cuts are cuts. Saving money by creating jobs through a sensible, investment-led economic policy is a world away from saving money by slashing dole. As anyone can find out in 30 seconds with their favourite search engine, Labour will use targeted investment spending to get the economy moving again and with it sort out unemployment. Though no one will say it, the cap is not about the sustainability or otherwise of the bill. It's about politics, and about showing that Labour has a handle on benefits and will not let the cost spiral out of control - though it is no danger of doing so, in reality.

The contributory principle of paying out more JSA than the standard £71/week to people who have been in work longer and more consistently is designed to give workers who may never or fleetingly go on the dole the idea their contribution counts and it's there when they need it. Quite how this will work for single parents - women particularly - and workers who, through no fault of their own, are locked into insecure and casualised labour markets remains to be seen. But there is danger that resentment diffused in one place will merely be repatriated to another.

But, in sum, this isn't "right-wing" let alone neoliberal. Do these, if enacted, give capital a stronger hand vis a vis labour? No. But it does represent an attempt to circumvent the toxicity of the social security debate by refusing to demonise recipients, looking at ways of getting people off the dole and into jobs by stimulating the economy, bringing down housing benefit without cutting support available to tenants, and giving a wider layer of workers more of a stake in the system. And Labour aims to do so without handing the Tories and their friends in the press a stick with which to beat them - a stick that, sadly, is very effective for the reasons already stated.

There is a lot of detail to come between now and election day, and every bit of it needs critically scrutinising. But taken as is Ed's speech represents an attempt to re-win popular consent for the very idea of social security under very difficult political circumstances. If readers have an alternative that can, to use an ugly phrase, 'deliver fairness' and rebuild wide support, I would be very interested to hear it.


Speedy said...

My understanding is that welfare exploded under the Tories as a way to cover for the decline of the big industries. I don't think Labour made it worse although I don't think their materialistic approach worked - I encountered many multi-generational families on benefits in a professional capacity (and my own family for that matter) who had tons of stuff but struggled with massively low self-esteem that led to poor school results, rock bottom aspirations and even malnutrition, principally because they did not know how to manage a budget.

Labour should have made more than a belated effort to get these people in to work but I wonder if they simply gave up on the (mosly ) white working class - much more satisfying to invite in hard-working uncomplaining hopefully bloody grateful (Labour voting) folk from really poor countries? I think there's more than a grain of truth in this - much easier to import new workers than get the existing ones off their asses. A kind of institutional failure of their duty of care. I mean, this is what you'd expect the Tories to do, right?

I think Labour began to get its act together toward the end - a shame it was just dreadfully, destructively naive (maybe because so few of them were from working class backgrounds they simply didn't have the balls to do an IDS) - and reform is continuing. That's not to say I agree with the social cleansing that's going on etc, but Labour had plenty of time to sort that out before the bastards got back in. The new Labour paper looks OK.

Anonymous said...

My one great concern is where you say that out-of-benefits should depend on an active job search and on meetings with an advisor.

I would be less concerned about this if those conditions were administered fairly and properly by DWP. There is a substantial evidence that this is currently not the case - claimants are being sanctioned for all manner of trivial reasons. Moreover, sanctions policies seem to vary according to the claimant's geographical region.

This is an issue that must be addressed, in my view.

Adam Marks said...

The alternative, perhaps, if your argument doesn't seem to cut is to rephrase and restate it continually until you find a way that does. The trouble is, as usual, we're caught in ever decreasing circles. The Labour party concedes, in this case quite crucial principles, the end universalism and the idea that each receives what they need not what they contribute, in order to defend something of the remaining welfare state. The next time the right comes for the working class the whole process begins again only at a lower level and more is lost. Not forgetting Austerity Lite isn't going to generate much voter enthusiasm. Labour will let it's base continue to decay (another aspect of the ever decreasing circle).

Rent capping and house building are an excellent idea. But it strikes at the heart of the model of the last 30 years of capital accumulation and the power base that has built up around it, developers and the banks. Will Labour ACTUALLY take those groups on, let alone give them a good fight?

Phil said...

"Will Labour ACTUALLY take those groups on, let alone give them a good fight?"

It will if many tens of thousands more people disgusted and dispossessed by austerity joined the party.

Adam Marks said...

But, as I'm sure you can appreciate, there's a circle-into-square problem. The Labour Party does not engage many people disgusted and dispossessed by austerity because its leadership does not intend to break with the last 30 years of capital accumulation and the power base built up around it (of which the senior Labour cadre is a part More than that, the kind of measures that need to be taken are beyond the modern Labour Party, even on its best days.

Anything else is just wishful thinking.