Tuesday, 7 May 2013

So what do UKIP have to say about welfare?

Max Wind-Cowie writes for Prospect magazine that UKIP's recent electoral and polling successes can be put down to it's 'accidental post-liberalism'.  By 'post-liberalism', Wind-Cowie means the idea that there are serious fallouts, losses and consequences from the hegemony of liberalism: both economic and social.  By 'accidental', he means that UKIP has come to espouse this position almost by fluke; that it has found strong public support for both its policies and arguments because they speak to a post-liberal mindset.

Whisper it quietly, but I suspect that Farage and co now know that this is where their future lies.  No longer will they keep up the frankly bizarre pretence of being a libertarian party, nor a simply more-right-wing-than-the-Tories party.  Their recent success has been built on adopting policies and arguments that counter the dominant liberal narrative of the main three parties; and this means that policies that must appeal to both middle- and working-class voters.  Hence why, quite importantly, their commitment to a flat tax was recently dropped.

For those of us interested in social security, this raises the interesting question of what UKIP will eventually say about the welfare state.  If Wind-Cowie's thesis is correct (and I suspect it is) it means that UKIP will look to build a conservatively-inclined, but still post-liberal, welfare strategy.  This will involve a far more complex approach than simply cutting back on social security, as the Conservatives tend to favour.

Out of all the main parties, Labour has flirted the most with post-liberalism: with a small group of academics and MPs, such as Maurice Glasman and John Cruddas, attracted to it ideas.  In terms of welfare, post-liberalism has often been expressed in terms of reestablishing the contributory principle and prioritising certain groups for things like social housing.  This is 'post-liberal welfare' because it couches the receipt of social security in a language devoid of the individualist rhetoric of 'social rights' or 'need'.  It speaks to a wholly different line of reasoning: one based upon contribution, reciprocity, desert and the good of the community.

But Labour has yet to decide where it lies on welfare; the kind of ideas Glasman et al put forward will cost big money and involve a substantial reorientation of the welfare state.  But what they do is give us some ideas of what UKIP might offer on welfare, with a conservative edge of course.  This could involve emphasising contribution, and so favouring benefits for pensioners and NI contributors over (semi-) universal payments with more abstract objectives, such as Child Benefit.  It could also, inevitably, mean the right to social security is removed from newly arrived immigrants.

In light of the debate last week about winter fuel payments and bus passes, these kind of dividing lines could come to be crucial.  The support given my most people in defence of universal benefits for pensioners is not based on the abstract language of liberalism, but the more basic response of contribution: of paying your dues.  At the moment, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are all flirting with the idea of means-testing pensioner benefits.  To support this would be to swim against the 'post-liberal' tide; and to play in the hands of the only party who is genuinely picking up its mantle.


  1. Thanks Dan, really interesting post! I was wondering if you could clarify though, as i'm pretty confused about this term 'post-liberal'. What is the meaning of the 'liberalism' that this set of policies is 'post'? Because on my understanding of the term, the idea of 'contribution' is far more 'liberal' (in the sense in which it is used in the term 'neoliberal', for example, or in the term 'liberal economics') than the idea of 'needs' -- the phrase "to each according to his needs" doesn't sound particularly 'liberal' in this sense to me, whereas getting back only what you put in, or having to 'earn' your safety-net through contribution, does (although again I perhaps misunderstand what you mean by contribution in this context).


  2. Hi Chris. I use the term 'liberal' to refer to a 'needs-based' welfare system in the sense that advocates of a liberal welfare state argue you should only be entitled to social security if you are unable to meet your needs in the market. The goal of social policy here is to enable individuals to independent and self-reliant; if you can achieve this via the market, you thus have no 'need' for state support. Benefits in a 'liberal' welfare state are therefore highly targeted on the very poorest. I think this is generally the position of the Tories and the Lib Dems, and to a large extent Labour.

    The alternative ways of providing benefits are either a) universally, as a right of citizenship or b) based upon a person's contribution to society (which can be broadly defined of course). The reason I say contributory benefits are 'post-liberal' is that they, by definition, involve the state promoting certain values: that could be the reward of doing paid work, of promoting a certain family type or celebrating community involvement (e.g. Labour's idea of fast-tracking active community members to the top of social housing waiting lists).

    If UKIP (or Labour) do start to emphasise contributory benefits again, I think this will involve a turn against the trend for the way that political parties have thought about defining benefit eligibility: as highly targeted on the poorest. It will involve political parties re-thinking about what type of society we want to live in, what values the state should promote, the limitations of the market and so on. I think David Goodhart from Prospect is the guy who coined the term, here's an old article he wrote about it a couple of years ago: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/blue-labour-red-tory-next-big-thing/

    I hope that makes a bit more sense!

  3. Hi Dan, thanks that makes sense. However, i'm not sure I agree. From the description you gave of the 'needs' based welfare principle, it seems that it is 'liberal' only insofar as it works alongside the market - in fact, it appears to be holding the welfare state as an exception to the market: we encourage you to participate in the market; if that fails, there is a system of benefits provided by the state that is outside of the market. The contributory principle then seems like the encroachment of the market into this exceptional sphere: the system of benefits provided by the state is no longer completely outside of the market, for example contributions that you made while participating in the market (whether that's monetarily or through social participation of some kind) partly determine what you get in this welfare sphere.
    It seems that the 'needs' based system you describe is much closer to a universal system (everyone is entitled to benefits if they so need) than to a liberal system (the epitome of which would presumably be totally market determined, such as an insurance scheme or private pensions.)

  4. Just picking up on your last point, I'm not sure why you think a residual, means-tested system of social security based upon need is closer to a universal system ('everyone gets something') than an entirely liberal one, which is as you say is complete private provision. The idea of the 'needs-based' liberal welfare state is that the vast majority of citizens are reliant on their welfare through the market (or other private means, e.g. the family). Social security here is a rump system designed to alleviate the most basic human needs whilst people are unable to participate in the market. It's very essence is that freedom is achieved via the market. The universal system, alternatively, is designed to liberate people from the market by providing all citizens with generous levels of benefits and quality services. I think the contributory system exists somewhere between these two positions; it sees the two spheres you talk about (the welfare state and the market) as mutually dependent.

  5. The difference you describe between the 'needs' and 'universal' systems is based on the quantity of benefits people get, not on the means of deciding who gets those benefits. You could have a 'universal' system that gives something to everyone but that gives only enough to meet the most basic needs; similarly you could have a 'needs' based one in which anyone who doesn't earn enough to live a luxurious life gets those 'luxurious needs' met through benefits. Therefore both set a minimum standard of income: what this level is decided to be is a different question. With a high level set, the only difference between the two seems to be whether you give those already meeting their 'luxurious needs' money through benefits or not. The contributory system is surely completely different to both of these: who gets benefits is decided not by a minimum standard, but by their 'hard work' and contribution made in the market (i.e. liberal principles) - meaning that some groups will inevitably fall below the minimum standard set in the other two systems.

  6. I think I disagree - the difference between a needs-based and a universal system is precisely the decision mechanism for who gets what. In the needs-based system, it is (lack of) income; in the universal system, it by virtue of citizenship. I agree with you that in the end, people's final incomes may be broadly similar in both a means-tested system and a universal one. The key differences being that in the latter, it is a) generally easier for governments to redistribute income and hold back inequality and b) qualitatively different, in that income (or a proportion of it at least) is guaranteed via non-market means which, so the argument goes, to some extent frees people from wage labour.

    Re: your second point, in practice contributory systems most often consist of two elements: a means-tested social assistance component for those without the require contributions (this sets the minimum income that the other two systems also do) and a social insurance component that provides higher levels of benefits for those who have been able to contribute.

  7. Sorry, maybe I didn't explain my point very well: I wasn't trying to claim that the difference between 'universal' and 'needs' based systems was the quantity of benefits people get: I was just pointing out that your argument that the former provides "generous levels of benefits and quality services" while the latter is "a rump system designed to alleviate the most basic human needs" has got nothing to do with the distribution mechanism, but with the quantitative level of benefits set.

    Returning to the original point: I still don't see how the practical contributory system you outline is 'post-liberal': if the uniqueness of it as compared to the other two systems is the 'social insurance component', then is this not an application of liberal market principles to a portion of the welfare system?