Monday, 11 March 2013

Contribution and three questions for the left on welfare

This is a quick piece provoked by a discussion I’ve been following on Twitter today, revolving around whether or not Labour should structure its welfare policy around the contributory principle.

There are genuine and valid concerns being raised about the contributory principle.  Mainly, what about those who can’t contribute much/at all: young people, carers, disabled people and so on.  For many on the left, contribution should not be the governing principle at the heart of the welfare state.

What I want to briefly argue here is that people on the left should be arguing for contribution.  And this applies to two different groups: those who see contribution as an end in itself and those who should see it as a means towards the kind of welfare state they want.  To my mind, this position follows logically from the answers to three questions.

1. What kind of welfare state does the left want?

While there is a small but vocal wing on the left who are generally supportive of the existing welfare state (probably with more done on work incentives and labour market policies), I think there is a majority on the left (split between the ‘Blue Labour’ and traditional social democratic wings) who want to radically change the welfare state to win back public support for social security.  This generally involves a desire to see more generous benefits, the protection against new social risks and properly funded and dignified back-to-work and training programmes.  While there are differences and disagreements, I think more unites these two wings of the left on welfare than divides them.  In general, this is an argument for welfare expansion.

2. Where do the public stand on this vision?

Now this is where welfare policy gets tricky.  Public attitudes to welfare are volatile.  While there is a strong level of residual support for the idea of a welfare state, it is surely the case that any talk of ‘welfare expansion’ will fall on deaf – and hostile – ears.  There is thus a profound gap here between what many on the left want and where a large majority of the public tend to stand.  Which leads to question 3):

3. How do you expand welfare when the public are against your ideas?

Amongst those on the economic right of Labour, the response to this question has been: ‘you can’t’.  The nature of this strategy is to see public attitudes as immobile and predetermined. 

But this is the wrong strategy; not only is it defeatist and ignorant of the recent history of public attitudes, but it ignores the reality that, often, public opinion responds to what politicians say, and not vice versa.  Many on the left should thus see their vision of welfare expansion as ultimately possible.

However – and this is where contribution is important – this will take some time.  Shifting public attitudes is a long-term game and needs to be done incrementally.  Margaret Thatcher knew this.  The residual, stigmatising welfare state we have today is the end product of a 30 year journey.  When Thatcher first came to power, her radical plans to scale back social security were opposed by large swathes of the population.  In response, the governments of the 1980s and early 1990s implanted ideas and introduced change slowly.  Ultimately, as the present system testifies, they were victorious.

Labour should learn these lessons of history when it comes to welfare.  The road to a radically different and more generous welfare state will be long.  Contribution – while opposed by many on the left for good reasons – offers a way of increasing public support for welfare whilst boosting the protective powers of social security.  Whether Ed Miliband proceeds with this idea could define Labour’s election in 2015.

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