Thursday, 22 December 2011

Scroungers, cheats and fraud: How does the media stigmatise benefit claimants?

We can all sense that over the past few years there has been a deep shift in attitudes towards benefit claimants and, more broadly, against the welfare state.  Data on social attitudes show as much - with huge swings since the early 2000s against supporting those who need social security.

But what role has the media played in this?  Excellent bloggers like Sue Marsh have consistently held the media to account for their often vitriolic and false accusations against benefit claimants.  Similarly, Ben Baumberg over at the collaborative Inequalities blog has recently written three excellent articles on John Humphrys' controversial TV show on the welfare state.

But how can we quantify the media's role?

So we all sense that there has been a qualitative shift in how the media represent benefit claimants, but is there also a quantitative shift?  Are the media not just being more pejorative about claimants, but are they doing so with increasing consistency?

One way to check this out is to examine the frequency with which the media uses certain loaded and derogatory terms aimed at benefit claimants.  Using the Nexis UK system, I explored the extent to which national daily newspapers in the UK used certain phrases associated with benefits: 'scrounger', 'benefit cheat' and 'benefit fraud'.  I looked at this for the past 12 years and the results are shown below:

Number of articles (per year) which reference certain phrases associated with benefits

The results are, sadly, as we might expect.  In short, I think we can split the above graph into three
different periods of time.  The first is between 2000 and around 2003/04, when media use of the above phrases was fairly steady.  Then, after this period we being to see quite a stark increase.  The number of articles referencing 'benefit fraud', for example, doubled from around 200 in 2003 to 400 in 2005.  Similarly, the number of articles referencing 'scrounger' jumped from 140 in 2003 to 338 in 2006.  These years in the mid-2000s appear to represent a first phase in the hardening of attitudes towards benefit claimants.

The third period - which the graph clearly shows as originating in 2009 - appears to mark a third, profound shift in how the media portrays benefit claimants.  Between 2009 and 2010, the annual media use of 'scrounger' jumped from 291 to 902, the use of 'benefit cheat' increased from 277 to 693 and 'benefit fraud' from 299 to 530.

While there has been a significant reduction in the use of these terms in 2011, the frequency with which newspapers use them is still way, way higher compared with the start of the century.  Thus, in what will surely confirm many people's worst suspicions, it seems true the media has used the onset of financial crisis and economic recession to increasingly pin the blame of our troubles at the hands of the poorest in society.  It is data like these which can sometimes make the UK a rather gloomy place to live in.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Spirit Level, inequality and social hierarchy

Christopher Snowdon, arch-critic of The Spirit Level and author of The Spirit Level Delusion, has written a lengthy post here about what he perceives as Wilkinson and Pickett's flawed reasoning about the relationship between inequality, social hierarchy and anxiety.  

In short, the chain of reasoning in this relationship is as follows.  Higher levels of inequality lead to greater social hierarchies.  In societies where there are greater social hierarchies, people are more concerned about their social status and their relationships with other people.  This makes people anxious and stressed which, in turn, affects mental and physical health. 

As Snowdon rightly points out, this theory 'is crucial to everything that follows in The Spirit Level'.  If inequality does not lead to stress- and anxiety-inducing social differences which damage people's health, then the theoretical basis of The Spirit Level falls down.  Snowdon goes into great detail about the empirical weaknesses to the theory, yet one particular, popular argument is used.

What about Japan?

Snowdon, like other critics, looks to the seemingly paradoxical example of Japan; both equal and highly socially-stratified, 'It would be hard to find a more hierarchical and status-driven society than Japan'.  The same point is made by John Goldthorpe in this 2009 article, where it is argued that Wilkinson and Pickett misconstrue the relationship between status and inequality.

But does the fact that Japan has both high income equality and wide social hierarchies disprove Wilkinson and Pickett's theory?  I don't think it does.  If it does disprove their theory, we are effectively saying that wide social hierarchies - whether in Japan or the US - are of qualitatively the same nature as each other.  It is an argument that gives no room to the idea that two deeply hierarchical societies can have fundamentally different types of hierarchy.

The idea that hierarchies can be varied and, thus, have different consequences should not surprise us.  In our everyday lives we exist in and confront hierarchies that are different all the time.  The family, for example, is an extremely hierarchical institution, yet not one that particularly induces stress or anxiety because of its hierarchical nature.

It's not just hierarchy, but the type of hierarchy

This raises the prospect that Japan and the US, despite both being highly hierarchical, have qualitatively different types of hierarchy.  In particular, I think there might be something about the more US-oriented meritocratic structure of status difference which makes it more prone to higher levels of stress or anxiety than other forms of hierarchical difference. Meritocracy, by virtue of its meaning, tells us that we are where we are because of who we are.  In other words, the poor deserve their lot, just as the rich deserve their wealth.  If we find ourselves at a low ebb, meritocracy tells us to look at ourselves and our own purported failings and weaknesses.

Now I don't know much about Japanese society, but there is surely the prospect that its form of status-differentiation is different to America's: less stigmatising and less competitive.  In other words, it might be less shameful to be who you are.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Is there such a thing as the 'feckless benefit scrounger'

In a blogpost for the Telegraph today, Dan Hodges urged Ed Miliband to shift to the Right in order to win back public support.  In one particularly notable sentence, Hodges argued that Miliband needs to convince people that 'he won't take their money and hand it to a bunch of feckless benefit scroungers'.

I suspect Hodges used this phrase because he knows that it will seriously annoy many on the Left who, despite New Labour's heady shake-up of welfare, remain deeply uncomfortable with the direction of welfare reform and the language of scrounging.  There is a very strong sense - and one that I think is getting stronger - that these attitudes need to be seriously taken on.

The challenge for those of us with this disposition is to question the common use of an anti-benefits language.  This is certainly no easy task; as the British Social Attitudes series has show, it seems that people from all walks of life are now united in their view of benefit claimants.  The use of this language by a person like Hodges - supposedly a man of the Left - shows how ingrained this kind of psyche is.

But how can this be done?  I would argue that there are two ways to challenge this dominant narrative: an ethical way ('is it morally right to conceptualise our fellow citizens in such a way?') and an empirical way ('who are the benefit scroungers and do they actually exist?').

As much as I think that the ethical debate is an important one, it seems a matter of fact that most people do think it is fair - providing it is true - that if people are 'scrounging' then they deserve to be shamed for it.  While many of us find this view untenable, changing it is not something that can be done overnight: it will require a longer-term shift in the social attitudes of the British population.

In the shorter-term, a potentially more fruitful approach may be to ask questions of a more empirical nature.  What is a benefit scrounger?  Who are the benefit scroungers?  How many benefit scroungers are there?  What cost does scrounging have?

When I come across people with a very open hostility to benefit claimants, these are the kind of questions I'll ask.  Quite often, people are forced to reconsider their seemingly ingrained views.  They clearly don't think a scrounger is someone who genuinely wants a job or whose health gets in the way of one.  They often don't know that there are strong conditions in place to monitor those who might are turning down work.  They don't tend to think that £60 per week is enough to live on and agree that unemployed people need good support to get back to work.  Finally, they will often agree that tax evasion costs us far, far more than that which benefit fraud is estimated to do.

In other words, if we use such questions to challenge the reality behind the rhetoric, we challenge the very notion that there is such a thing as the 'feckless benefit scrounger'.  Only by questioning this myth - and hopefully exploding it - can the Left even begin to outline its own vision of a better welfare state.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

When does 'workfare' actually work?

In the Chancellor's autumn statement to parliament, he raised the prospect of 'mandatory work activity' being imposed upon benefit claimants who had failed to find work after a certain amount of time. This is more commonly known as 'workfare': the provision of benefits in return for compulsory work. Politically and morally, workfare is deeply controversial.

More empirically though, what does workfare set out to achieve and is it capable of succeeding? The logic of workfare is as follows. Imagine individual A. A is unemployed and there are job opportunities available for him. However, once he accounts for all his existing income plus the benefits he receives from the government, A will only be £20 per week better off with a job than without one. A makes the decision that 25 hours a week in work is not worth an extra £20 and decides to continue claiming benefit. Contrast this with individual B. The pay-off from work will be higher for B but there are no job opportunities available.

Now, if the government introduces workfare (which it is now doing), it would follow that A and all those like him will now stop claiming benefit and take a job. While the pay-off from work will still only be an extra £20 per week, the option of remaining on benefit is no longer attractive: it will involve working the same hours for less money than what could be earned in the labour market. Meanwhile, B and his equivalents will move into workfare which could (theoretically) improve their job prospects.

In this situation, the government is able to make significant savings. Claimants like A stop claiming benefit and start paying tax, while B and co increase their prospects of finding a job.

While there are all sorts of (and rightly so) moral problems with this approach, there is the even bigger question of whether it would have any chance of working. The success of workfare depends entirely on a large group of people (the As) being voluntarily unemployed; yet in such a difficult labour market - where the vast, vast majority of people do want work - the logic of workfare just doesn't add up to reality. Instead of trying to deter people from using the welfare state, it is far better to give them what they need, whether that is personalised support, intensive counselling, training schemes or (heaven forbid) an old-fashioned benefit while they simply wait for a job to come up.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Should the Conservatives apologise for 'welfare dependency'?

In the year and a half that the Coalition has been in power, perhaps the most cited quip from ministers has been the call that Labour should apologise for increasing the size of the UK's deficit. While this is a clear political ploy to strengthen the perception amongst voters that Labour was to blame, it raises an interesting question about whether political parties should admit fault wherever it may lie.

If this is the case, then there is surely a strong argument that the Conservatives should come out and apologise for their record on welfare. It is well-known throughout policy and political circles that the Incapacity Benefit caseload increased to such a large extent because the Conservative governments of the 1980s deliberately encouraged unemployed people to make the transition to sickness benefits. We can see this just by looking at the local authorities in England and Wales with the highest Incapacity Benefit caseloads. According to Bambra (2011), these are:

  1. Merthyr Tydfil
  2. Easington
  3. Blaenau Gwent
  4. Neath Port Talbort
  5. Rhondda
  6. Liverpool
  7. Knowsley
  8. Caerphilly
  9. Manchester
  10. Hartlepool
As is clear, these are all areas that suffered massively from the economic restructuring of the 1980s; if the unemployed in these authorities weren't transferred to IB, they would have made the unemployment figures look even worse than they were at the time.

It was a disgrace that instead of supporting unemployed people and helping them find work again, the Conservatives were content to classify them as 'economically inactive' and worthy of no real back-to-work support. It is an even bigger disgrace that it is these same people that the Coalition is intent on systematically stigmatising through its campaign on 'undeserving' groups. Perhaps it is time for the Conservatives to issue an apology of their own.

Monday, 21 November 2011

How 'active' is welfare in the UK? Spending on welfare in OECD countries

Unemployment figures last week showed that the UK is facing a serious problem of rising unemployment, with particularly worrying figures for young people. But how much do we do as a country to help unemployed people find work? One popular way that governments across the West have recently utilised to try and fight unemployment has been 'active' welfare, i.e. the provision of extra training for unemployed people in return for greater conditionality.

The graph below (taken from this DWP report) shows that the UK is one of the smallest spenders on active welfare compared with similarly advanced OECD countries. We spend just over 0.3% of GDP on active labour market policies, compared to other countries - like the Netherlands and Denmark - who spend over 1%.

Although these figures are from 2009, there is no evidence that the Government is seriously committing significantly higher amounts of funding to active labour market policies. They may be scrapping the New Deals in favour of the Work Programme, but this seems to be primarily a matter of tinkering with provision and incentives, not investment.

We all know that Britain faces a crisis in unemployment with the prospect of a generation of young people excluded from the labour market. If we want to deal with unemployment we need to direct more investment towards active measures which skill people appropriately for industries where there is a demand for labour. This should be a policy area where left and right can, for once, agree.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

'Do conservative governments make people want to die?"

I recently reviewed 'Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others' for the LSE Politics and Policy blog, a new book by James Gilligan, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at New York University. In the book, through observations covering over 100 years of US data, Gilligan outlines distinct trends in patterns of homicide and suicide ('violent death'). Namely, he observes that when a Republican is president rates of violent death increase and when a Democrat is president rates of violent death decrease. He puts this down to the much higher levels of socio-economic stress which are caused by Republican policies, such as increased unemployment and income inequality. Quite literally, it seems that conservatism kills.

The question which naturally arises for the British reader is whether this pattern holds in the UK. In other words, is increased mortality correlated with Conservative governments? Does conservatism kill?

This 2002 paper from Shaw, Dorling and Davey Smith sets out to answer this question with regards to suicide (with the rather morbid sub-heading 'Do conservative governments make people want to die?'). In the paper, the authors compare the suicide rate (per million) for each five-year period over the 20th-century. They then assign a prime minister to each five-year period (where there is more than one, the PM in power for the longest period during the five years is chosen).

The results are pretty stark. For example, the five most 'suicidal' five-year periods are as follows:

  • 1961-1965 (Macmillan, Conservative: 137 suicides per million)
  • 1931-1935 (MacDonald, Conservative/Liberal coalition: 135)
  • 1936-1940 (Chamberlain, Conservative: 124)
  • 1926-1930 (Baldwin, Conservative: 123)
  • 1986-1990 (Thatcher, Conservative: 121)
All in all, the authors state that the mean suicide rate during period of Labour and Liberal rule was 103 suicides per million per year. When the Conservatives were in power, the suicide rate was nearly always on average 1.17 times greater than this. In total, the paper argues that the 17% excess suicide attributable to Conservative governments is equivalent to 35,000 extra suicides over the past century. Or, to put it more bluntly, 2 suicides for each day that the Tories are in power.

The paper by Shaw and colleagues was a response to an Australian study which also found that higher rates of suicide were associated with conservative governments. So from just these three examples, we have evidence of a link between conservatism and death which spans the US, Britain and Australia. The reasons for this are unclear and contested, ranging from psychosocial explanations (there is more hope under centre-left governments) to material ones (there are better public services and lower poverty rates).

Saturday, 29 October 2011

What can Derren Brown and The Gameshow tell us about attitudes to welfare?

In a brilliant but disturbing show, Derren Brown's 'The Gameshow' explored how people, when part of an anonymised crowd, can be manipulated to treat others in abominable ways. In the show, the crowd (all wearing masks) were given a series of choices (a good one and a bad one concerning the evening of a completely unaware subject. Consistently, the crowd chose the bad choice; by the end of the show they had opted to tell the subject that he had lost his job, had gleefully encouraged a cameraman to smash his TV and had chosen to have him kidnapped by an armed mob.

The theory which Brown wanted to explore in the show is called 'deinviduation'; a concept drawn from both psychology and sociology. Roughly, the theory states that when people become part of a group (often anonymised), they are more likely to withdraw from conventional norms of behaviour and act in surprising ways. It has been used to explain seemingly inexplicable behaviour, such as lynch mobs, hooliganism and even genocide.

When I watched the show, I started to think about whether these ideas can tell us anything about people's behaviour towards benefit claimants. Over the past fifteen years, people's attitudes to those on benefits has changed fundamentally. Data on attitudes show that people are more likely to say benefits are too high and that government should spend less, that people dependent on benefits 'have enough' to live on, that most people could find a job if they wanted one and that poverty is due to laziness and lack of willpower.

Many people have found this turn to be quite alarming. It seems that a solid majority of the public would now choose to inflict economic hardships and psychosocial shame on those who require benefits to survive. It is often justified through reference to the moral fibre of those on benefits; i.e., that they don't deserve the support of others, that they are feckless and need to be taught a lesson.

This led me to consider whether deinviduation - the process whereby we become part of group mentality, discarding our capacity to reason fairly and humanely - can go some way to explaining the nasty and discomfiting attitudes many hold to often very vulnerable people. It would be wonderful to read any research which looks into this or, perhaps, even do some myself.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Fact or fiction? Thoughts on inequality and The Spirit Level

Most people interested in social policy and politics will be (perhaps too) familiar with the argument set out in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's (WP) book The Spirit Level: that more equal societies perform better - because of their egalitarianism - on a range of health and social problems. I've returned to the argument today because I was directed to this video of a debate last year between WP and two of their most notable critics, Peter Saunders and Christopher Snowdon (SS). As a student of social statistics I thought I would offer my thoughts on the whole debate.

SS's critique centres on two of the most pressing issues in quantitative methods: sample and analysis. In short, the sample critique is that WP 'cherry picked' certain countries which fitted their hypothesis. Snowdon, for example, points out that they should and could have included South Korea, Slovenia and the Czech Republic in their analysis, yet didn't. The method critique is that WP rely on simplistic bivariate techniques (i.e. between 1 outcome variable (e.g. homicide) and 1 explanatory variable (inequality)). As my own stats teacher told us, social scientists very quickly move on from two-variable analyses to more complex, multivariate analyses which can explore the impact of multiple explanatory variables.

Thus, to an extent, I think that The Spirit Level is vulnerable to these accusations and that SS's criticisms are reasonably founded.

But - and this is a big but - I would then argue that the whole Spirit Level debate completely misses the point. As WP say in the RSA video, their book is more of a precis of hundreds of papers and decades worth of research which, time and again, has demonstrated a significant relationship between inequality and social ills. This is where the real evidence of the inequality effect lies and, in their attempt to communicate this to a much wider, non-epidemiological audience, WP have perhaps relied on shaky statistical ground.

The main challenge for WP's antagonists - and something I haven't seen them do - is to take on all the other evidence which suggests that inequality makes societies worse. As a book on its own, The Spirit Level is an easy target for conservatives and liberals who are ideologically comfortable with high social inequalities. What I would really like to see from them - and what is a much bigger challenge - is to engage with the much wider, and much more powerful, arguments which back up WP's more contentious piece of work.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The problem with welfare conditionality

In an excellent article from 2000, the political theorist Stuart White explores the development of the new welfare politics of contractualism and conditionality. In it, he attempts to advance a centre-left, egalitarian justification for imposing certain conditions on benefit claimants.

White's justification surrounds the notion of reciprocity, which he argues is essential to egalitarian notions of co-operation and solidarity. Many on the political left, for example, support a society in which people are willing to give help to those who need it and, subsequently, are secure themselves that they will be looked after if they so need.

Following on from this, White argues that it is not necessarily inconsistent to apply the principle of reciprocity to welfare payments. If citizens can expect to be supported by others in times of need, it is only fair that this is bound by a duty to contribute back into that society. In the case of welfare, this often means being required to look for work/accept reasonable work if in receipt of social security.

However, White tempers this principle with important qualifications. It is only fair, he argues, to expect welfare recipients to accept certain duties if - and only if - certain background conditions are in place. This might include the guarantee to a decent minimum income, opportunities for work and recognition alternative forms of participation, such as caring. Without these conditions, White questions whether welfare conditionality can be fair. We would not expect slaves, to take an extreme example, to hold a duty to work in slave society. To do so would be to argue that "individuals have an enforceable moral obligation to co-operate in their own exploitation".

For me, White gets at the crux at why many people on the political left feel uneasy with the notion of welfare conditionality. It is not so much an issue with the principles of contribution and reciprocity which can underpin some forms of conditionality but, rather, the economic environment in which these conditions are enforced. In a labour market where jobs are both scarce and often of very low quality, can it be fair to impose a duty upon people to put themselves in this situation? Is it fair, in other words, to enforce people to oblige in their own humiliation?

Friday, 14 October 2011

A map of UK unemployment

The map below graphs the level of unemployment by county across the UK. Mapping data like this is a powerful way of exploring statistics and seeing the extent to which socio-economic problems are experienced throughout the country. The brightest colour represent the lowest unemployment rate (between 3 and 3.9%), with the darkest colour the highest (over 10%). For all the other colours, the darker the shade the higher the rate. (For areas which are black there are no data)

What can we learn from this map? In general, I think there are three insights.

  1. There is no simple north/south divide. Many areas, regardless of location, are actually experiencing quite similar levels of unemployment: there are no strikingly clear and straightforward differences between regions as we might expect. In the south-east, for example, there are county variations in unemployment which are quite similar to the Midlands or the the North-West. Economic problems are hitting many places in quite equal ways.
  2. But, there are pockets of the UK where unemployment is chronically high. Although many places have unemployment levels of between 6-8%, there are a significant number of areas where unemployment is particularly high (e.g. over 8%). Further, these places also tend to be clustered into small regions of very high unemployment, such as south-east Wales, west Scotland and the far North-East of England. Such places should be a particular focus for policy-makers.
  3. Finally, some places are comfortably protected from the UK's wider labour market difficulties. For some places, particularly in the far north of Scotland, the Home Counties and even parts of the North-West (such as Lancashire and Cheshire), there are relatively low levels of unemployment of between 3-5%. It seems that the local economies in these areas are to a large extent protected from the wider difficulties the national economy. We need to understand why some areas have strong local labour markets and, where possible, use this information to benefit weaker economies.

NB - The data are from

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The narrative of welfare reform

Politicians love reforming welfare. Almost all debates and discussions about welfare centre around how hard and fast it must be reformed. The effect is to conceptualise all previous welfare policy as being the same, or stagnant, as politicians and think-tankers fight with each other to persuade the public that it is they who are the biggest reformers of all.

This is of course all utter nonsense. Welfare has consistently been reformed for the past thirty years. Even during the 1979-1997, when the narrative would have us believe nothing was done to welfare, the Conservatives introduced countless reforms, such as the Community Programme, Restart, the Job Training Scheme, Employment Training, the abolition of the Employment Department and of course Jobseeker's Allowance.

And also contrary to the welfare narrative, New Labour was ruthless in its pursuit to shake up the welfare state. This included changing certain benefits (ESA), stepping up on conditionality, 'making work pay' and the New Deals, which we now seem to forget were a rather ambitious set of active labour market policies. The way that the Coalition talk about welfare, you would think Labour had done nothing at all. It just isn't true.

What is the effect of this narrative? As you can see above, the effect is for governments to constantly chop and change the entire system. In their desire to convince the public that they are genuinely reforming the welfare state, the users of its services and recipients of its benefits are constantly subjected to wholesale reorganisations. I haven't read any specific research on this, but the consequence for many must be deep insecurity and anxiety about what the future holds.

This is also the question of where it ends. How can you go on reforming and reforming and reforming? My hunch is that it will end when there is very little welfare left to reform.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Two challenges for welfare reformers

As part of the Coalition's welfare reform package, they are scrapping Labour's 'New Deal' programmes and replacing with the 'Work Programme'. The Work Programme will largely target the same recipient group as the New Deals but be delivered by a large network of private providers.

The evaluations of the New Deal programmes showed them to be moderately successful. The New Deal for Lone Parents, for example, boosted the number of lone parents returning to work by between 20 to 25 per cent. However, two problems were outlined by the evaluators.

(1) The New Deals worked best for those better equipped to return to the labour market and worse for those with the biggest barriers to work

(2) And, in terms of job retainment, many jobs which lasted over 3 months were not sustained over the longer term.

Evidence like this suggests that Active Labour Market Policies (ALMPs) work best for those who need them least. Thus, the Coalition and the array of private welfare-to-work providers face two profound challenges. First, they must ensure that the Work Programme succeeds in helping those with the biggest barriers begin the long road back to work. Second, they must ensure that when jobs are found, they are - as George Osborne might say - not just for christmas.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Ed Miliband is right to cast a critical gaze at capitalism; without this, Labour will struggle to matter

In its history, the Labour Party has been most successful at two particular moments: 1945 and 1997. For just six short years after the Second World War, Labour was successful in framing the shape of public policy for over three decades. In 1997, of course, the party was successful in another way: this time consolidating a pre-existing consensus, rather than building a new one.

Underpinning both settlements were different political approaches to the management of capitalism. In 1945, Labour had the political conviction, historical circumstance and intellectual grounding to challenge and control the economic system. It saw as its central task the challenge to make capitalism work for social – not just economic – ends. The economic system would be used to build a more democratic, cohesive and just society. From these convictions flowed many of the public welfare institutions which social democrats hold dear.

By 1997, Labour faced a double quandary. First, many of the aims of the 1945 social democrats had been achieved: universal health and education, workers’ rights and conditions, widespread pension provision, social security and so on. Many on the Left would have preferred more generous institutions, but the fact remained that they had been achieved. If the historic task of the post-war centre-left was to tame capitalism for the wider benefit of society, then it is arguable that this had been – to an extent - achieved.

However, the second quandary for the late twentieth-century Left was the changing nature of capitalism. After the regulated and controlled capitalism of the post-war era, a new and more unruly system arose from the ashes of the economic crises of the 1970s. This was an economic system which, in its global nature, was much harder for the Left to deal with and, in neo-liberalism, social democrats found a much more pugnacious intellectual opponent.

The general achievement of social democratic aims on the one hand and the rise of a new, unpredictable capitalism on the other pushed Labour towards a defensive conservatism. In facing an economic system which (a) it found difficult to contend with and (b) threatened many of its cherished institutions, Labour retreated to an uncomfortable position of accepting the new economic consensus but striving to defend and protect the social gains which it threatened. Thus, what was once the party of change and progress became one that merely sought to protect the gains of the past against the tide of the free market tsunami.

In this incarnation, New Labour gave the British centre-left a party capable of winning elections but impotent in making these victories matter. Labour once cast a profoundly critical eye on capitalism and sought to challenge the inequities and injustices which it produced. New Labour, on the contrary, had few answers to the expansion of free markets and, ultimately, adopted to embrace them. Labour became a profoundly pro-market party, distancing itself from the Right by a relatively stronger social programme.

But although the party won elections, millions of those sympathetic with the labour movement ended up feeling deeply underwhelmed. The reason for this seems that under New Labour social democracy aspired to little more than the protection of public services and a vague commitment to a very liberal form of equal opportunity.

In the end, this approach was quite clearly insufficient. To ignore free-market capitalism was to simultaneously undermine the very institutions and ideals the centre-left holds dear. For as each year passes, the profit motive encroaches further and further into the triumphs of social democracy. New Labour’s failure was to pretend that capitalism was irrelevant, yet history –as Marx argued – tells us precisely the opposite. For Labour to be truly relevant once more, it must examine, study and critique capitalism. And ultimately, it must aim to change it.

Friday, 23 September 2011

The unintended consequences of benefit sanctions

The Coalition's welfare reforms will step up the degree of conditionality and the use of sanctions on benefit claimants. The way Cameron and co portray these reforms, you would think they were the first government to have introduced conditions. This is an old trick. As those who have studied social policy will know, benefits have always been issued with certain stipulations. This was especially true of New Labour, who strengthened conditionality as part of their Third Way agenda.

Analysts have thus had a long time to assess the effects of benefit sanctions, and one interesting insight comes from a 2004 paper by UCL's Stephen Machin with Olivier Marie. In the article, Machin and Marie use quasiexperimental methodology to compare crime rates in in areas before and after the introduction of JSA, which at the time was seen as introducing a more punitive benefits regime.

Machin and Marie's results are quite fascinating. They found that in areas where there were more sanctions there was also a corresponding rise in crime. Thus, they argue that "benefit cuts and sanctions embodied in the JSA appear to have induced individuals previously on the margins to engage in crime".

The Coalition (and the whole political class in general) is widely convinced that there needs to be ever greater sanctioning in the benefits system. The argument for this is generally split in two: (a) the threat of sanctions is a matter of fairness (you get a benefit, we expect you to look for work); and (b) economic incentives will encourage people to find work.

While (a) is generally a moral issue, the evidence on (b) - as Machin and Marie show - is far from clear. We all want to see more people in work, but when we try achieving this by pushing people to the extremes of economic hardship, we might just find some very unintended - and some very undesired - consequences.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Did 'welfare dependency' cause England to riot?

In trying to explain last week's riots, one of the most popular explanations amongst people on the right is that they were caused by 'welfare dependency'. In other words, pockets of society have become so infected by a 'something for nothing', irresponsible welfare culture that it ultimately culminated in the mass looting across England last week. The solution is to reform welfare even more radically, so that a 'life on benefits' is an option for no-one.

There's a simple way to see if conservatives are correct about this. Notably, the riots only took place in England with no similar events occurring in Wales or Scotland. These were peculiarly English riots.

Thus, if 'welfare dependency' is really to blame, we would expect to see a clear statistical trend: higher levels of dependency in England, lower levels of dependency elsewhere. If we say that 'welfare dependency' (which is a crude term anyway) can be measured by the proportions of people in each region who are economically inactive and/or dependent upon out-of-work benefits, we can simply compare different regions. The welfare dependency thesis would lead us to predict that the affected regions would be the most economically inactive/benefit dependent.

Economic inactivity and benefit receipt by region

The graph above shows that there are no notable differences between the three affected regions (West Midlands, North West and London) and the two unaffected regions (Wales and Scotland). Indeed, out of all five regions, it is Wales which has the highest level of economic inactivity and the highest proportion of ESA/incapacity claimants.

The statistics just don't add up for people who think the welfare state is linked to the outbreaks of violence and looting this week. Not only do Wales and Scotland have extremely similar benefit caseloads as the rioting regions, they have a much stronger culture of welfare and social justice. Both countries are distinctly social democratic in comparison to conservative England, so the idea that either liberal criminal justice policy or social democratic welfare policy is to blame for the English riots looks to be unempirical nonsense. It is important that such arguments are heard before the Government takes its chance to cut the welfare state even further.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Inequality is a psychological - not material - problem

My post yesterday argued that one factor (and just one) behind this week's riots could be the high level of inequality we have in the UK, particularly in London (as several academic studies have shown).

A common response to theories of this kind is to hypothesise about the material lives of those guilty for the violence. Even before the looting, many poor, young people have the type of consumer goods - smartphones, HD televisions, designer clothes - which one does not usually associate with abject poverty. How can poverty and deprivation cause such anomic behaviour, when people possess the kind of goods that the poor could only dream of decades ago?

Krishnan Guru-Murthy expressed this point in his blog, arguing that: "If people riot because they can't afford the same consumer items as the rest of us then logic dictates that once they have got the trainers and televisions they crave the crime would stop".

Maybe, but only if you think inequality is a problem of material possession. On the other hand, if - as research such as this suggests - inequality is a psychosocial problem, then it will not make the blindest bit of difference what the rioters own and don't own.

The psychosocial thesis argues that the problem with inequality is the psychological and social stress caused by occupying a position of low status in society. When people are discernibly 'lower' than others in the social hierarchy, it induces all sorts of problems: ranging from stress and anxiety, to lack of trust and respect. When inequality is high - as it is in the UK - status differences are not only more visible within everyday social life, but also much wider and harder to break.

Status is a social phenomenon which is far more complex than what one owns and what one doesn't. The rioters might have plasma TVs, but they are still stuck on the bottom rung of society's ladder. And after this week, they'll be floating off into the gutter. Until we deal with our profound degree of status inequality, we will continue - to use our Prime Minister's words - to be a 'sick society'.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

A tale of two cities

Not long has the dust settled on a third night of violence, with a deep worry for another one, that people begin the search for a cause behind the unprecedented and completely unpredictable riots which have engulfed London and other English cities. Early choruses of 'pure criminality' are being replaced by increasingly political and social explanations. Debates and arguments will surely rage for months.

While many on the political right have begun to lay the blame at the gates of the welfare state, I would like to put forward an alternative explanation, of chronically high levels of social inequality. In particular, inequality - of opportunity, income, status and so on - blights London. According to this article by the New Economics Foundation, London is one of the most unequal cities in the Western world.

The figures come from a book by Professor Danny Dorling, a geographer from Sheffield University. In relation to them, Dorling argues that London is so unequal it 'resembles an Indian caste system, where people only mix with those from their own income brackets'.

For those who have ever lived in London, such imagery should be familiar; it is a city where affluence and prosperity sit side-by-side with enormous poverty. So much so, that Londoners have become accustomed to living separate lives from others with whom they share the same living space. It has, de facto, become two separate cities who barely interact. This week, those two cities have clashed. It will haunt London for years to come.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The Norway tragedy and solidarity

Yesterday, the New Statesman blogger Dan Hodges wrote an article which criticised people on the left, particularly the author Owen Jones, for expressing 'solidarity' with the people murdered in the shocking attacks in Norway last Friday.

The root of Hodges' argument seems to be this. That it is has been wrong for people on the left to use their political beliefs as a way of connecting with the dead in Norway and, as a result, seemingly 'exceptionalising' the tragedy as one in which socialists and social democrats hold a particular empathy; distinct from what a conservative or liberal might be feeling, and distinct to what might have been felt had it been a different group of young political activists killed. Hodges believes expressions of solidarity to be a cynical attempt by left-wingers to 'appropriate' tragedy for themselves.

In fact, it seems more likely that the person guilty of cynicism is Hodges himself. The tragedy in Norway is a tragedy at numerous levels. For anyone with a basic sense of humanity, it is a crime of the most profound sadness. For the families involved, there is a grief that the vast majority of us will never understand. And for people on the left - for this was a deliberate attack on social democrats - there is the reality that people with whom we share a community with have been targeted so callously.

Hodges ignores (and sees as dangerous) how death imbues different emotions. Sympathy for the loss of a fellow human; grief for the loss of a loved one; and solidarity with those who we share a community with. He calls for his readers to put aside politics in the face of a tragedy, yet it is inescapable that Hodges seems to be making a deeply political point himself; about his distaste for what he perceives as the left-wing notion of 'solidarity'.

This is a deep error; solidarity is not a notion which belongs exclusively to the left. Solidarity belongs to all of us who exist as members of different groups and communities. To try to remove solidarity from the experience of tragedy is to remove something which is deeply ingrained within human social life. On September 11, Americans stood together in solidarity as members of a national community. After the Hillsborough disaster, the people of Liverpool were united as one city. And it is undoubted that Jewish people, wherever in the world, feel a solidarity with fellow Jews in the wake of a horror such as the Holocaust.

I doubt that Hodges would criticise the above examples of solidarity so readily as he does the left's reaction to the Norway tragedy. And I doubt he would so forthrightly disregard the solidarity which Norwegians are using to comfort one another at this very moment. Solidarity exists within a range of communities: the national, the local, the religious and (yes) the political. Dan Hodges' discomfort with the solidarity shown by the left perhaps says more about his own unease within this particular community than any noble wish to sympathise with those affected on Friday.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Have the Conservatives made a mistake in sidelining Blond's Red Toryism?

In the latest edition of Social Policy Review 23, Jay Wiggan writes a very interesting article on the social policy thinking behind Cameron's conservatism and its relationship to Phillip Blond's vision of Red Toryism (a copy of the working paper can be found here).

In the article, Wiggan argues that in most social policy areas - such as public service delivery, poverty alleviation and welfare reform - Cameron has by and large stuck to a neo-liberal, paternalistic strategy, much in the spirit of both Thatcherism and elements of New Labour. In doing so, Wiggan argues that Cameron has largely ignored the thesis of Red Toryism. The Red Tory thesis shares some elements of traditional conservatism (such as self-reliance, a distrust of the state and a concern with dependency and worklessness), yet is openly critical of the neo-liberal model, both in terms of its economic effects (which have produced even less market plurality) and harmful social consequences (such as the emphasis on individualism over wider claims of community and civic responsibility).

After reading Wiggan's analysis, I can't help but feel that the Conservatives have missed out by sidelining Blond's ideas, as opposed to putting them at the centre of their political strategy. In an age of mass distrust of both the state and the market, a thesis which offers a coherent critique of both would seem to offer the Tories the chance of genuinely moving beyond Thatcherism and into a new age. By rejecting this route, it is of little surprise that they continue to be tarnished with the nasty brush: as the party of individualism, privatisation and social ignorance.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Are more equal societies the most altruistic?

Ever since Richard Titmuss's landmark study on blood donation and social policy, the act of voluntarily donating blood has been held up as a rare example of true human altruism. In more recent times, advocates of more equal societies have argued that if we want more altruism - and thus a better and stronger society - we must also strive for more income inequality.

Some work I am completing at the moment is looking at this claim: that stronger, more cohesive societies are also more equal. One indicator I am examining is altruism, as measured by blood donation, and I thought I would share this finding on here.

The relationship between blood donation and income inequality (data available here)

The graph above shows a strong correlation (r=0.7) between income inequality (as measured by the 20:20 ratio) and blood donation (as measured as the % of the population who have donated blood). The relationship is also highly statistically significant (p=0.008), meaning there is little chance that what is observed is due to chance.

Of course, we should not take such evidence as the be all and end all in the equality debate; the above graph just shows a simple bivariate relationship. Nevertheless, such evidence seems to be adding up. It is about time politicians - particularly those on the Left - woke up to it.

Monday, 4 July 2011

On equality (again)

I've written before about what I think is a split within the Left regarding the socialist preference for a society with more income equality. In Wilkinson's 'Unhealthy Societies', he explicitly articulates this division, which I think is worth repeating here:

The social and health effects of larger income differences provide a powerful reason for reducing them. Greater equality has traditionally been a socialist aim. But even among those who continue to advocate it, we find their rationale has been infected by the logic of economic relations. Greater income equity was originally seen as a way of furthering social harmony and reducing the structural basis for conflict between people: so much so that the same aspiration was also expressed in the socialist practice of referring to their fellows as 'brother' or sister'. But increasingly, income redistribution has been advocated - not for how it might benefit social relations - but simply as a demand for a fairer share-out of goods and services among societies assumed to be made up of self-interested individuals. The change is an important indication of how far economic ideology has penetrated: even those who at least partly reject the market have lost sight of our social core and unwittingly translated the socialist aims to fit a marketised humanity The uninspiring vision is, at best, of competitive, desocialised equity.

Now I am not saying that 'Blue Labour' has purchase on this rationale for greater equality, but I do think the communitarian issues it highlights draw us back to these (what I think are) stronger arguments for equality.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

How do we get healthier?

I've just finished reading Richard Wilkinson's 1997 book 'Unhealthy Societies', which explores similar themes (but is more health-related) than his co-authored book with Kate Pickett, called 'The Spirit Level'.

On page 114, Wilkinson produces a remarkable table which shows the additional increases in life expectancy in England and Wales throughout the twentieth-century (i.e. the additional years added to average life expectancy in each decade). I've reproduced the table below (male figures are in the left-hand column, female in the right):

1901/11 4.1 4
1911/21 6.6 6.5
1921/31 2.3 2.4
1031/40 1.2 1.5
1940/51 6.5 7
1951/60 2.4 3.2
1961/71 0.9 1.2
1971/81 2 1.8
1981/91 2.4 2

What is so interesting about the above table is that the largest increases in life expectancy happened during the two decades (1911/21 and 1940/51) when Britain was engaged in world wars. In other words, life expectancy increased most dramatically at a time of shortage, rationing and austerity. Such trends would run contra to what many of us would expect in the relationship between health and economics: more growth, less shortage, better health.

Why might this be? For Wilkinson, the reason life expectancy improved so dramatically is the different form of socio-economic organisation that war time demanded. Full employment was a necessity, income differences narrowed dramatically and the logic of the market was replaced by what Wilkinson calls "a deliberate policy designed to foster a sense of social unity and co-operation". In other words, individualism and social division were actively discouraged in favour of social cohesion and cooperation.

Much more research needs to be on the relationship between income inequality, market economics, social cohesion and health before anything like a causal relationship can be established. Nevertheless, if such relationships can be shown,they will raise extremely fundamental questions about the future for advanced, rich countries. It may mean that the centuries-old link between economic progress and social advancement is over.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Is immigration a barrier to a better welfare state?

One of the most common theories about why the UK has a much lower standard of welfare provision than the Scandinavian countries is that it is less ethnically homogeneous. In other words, the Scandinavians are more willing to pay in to a welfare state because their fellow citizens are 'more like them'. It is harder to build a socially cohesive society, and thus a society which prefers higher welfare, with a high level of multi-culturalism.

However, data from the 2009 UN Human Development Report suggest this theory is far too simplistic. As the graph below shows, the UK's immigrant population is only slightly larger than that of Norway and Denmark. And with regards to Sweden, we actually have a lower percentage of immigrants as a proportion of national population.

Immigrant population as a percentage of total population, 2005 (UNHDR, 2009)

Such evidence does not eliminate the population differences between the UK and the Scandinavian countries. They are of course much smaller, which may make for a more cohesive society. Equally, historical immigration rates may also be lower than the UK's, thereby providing the basis for a greater sense of societal reciprocity. Nevertheless, in the welfare debate it is always useful to separate the facts from the fiction. And for those who want a better welfare state, knock down the false barriers which the Right have erected.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Why do we find Philip Davies' comments so offensive?

Last Friday, the Conservative MP Philip Davies caused a storm of offence when he suggested that disabled people should be removed from minimum wage protection in order to boost the number of them in work. While most of the country wreathed in disgust, libertarians rose to his defence. Sam Bowman at the Adam Smith Institute for example wrote this riposte, arguing that imposing a 'false price' on a disabled person's labour leaves many of them without work.

Libertarians cannot understand the public reaction to Davies' comments: it is a simple matter of capitalist economics, they argue, that people have different values in the marketplace. Look at 16-20 year-olds, whose minimum wage is lower than everyone else's. It is lower because they are on average worth less to employers than older workers, who presumably have more marketable skills to offer.

However, the minimum wage debate is not really about economics, for what it illuminates is the facet of capitalism which we are perhaps most uncomfortable with: the deeply crass way in which it values human beings. The gut reaction to Davies' suggestion is that it is morally wrong: a disabled person is not worth less than anybody else. But on the market, people are worth different things. Young people are (see above); most women are if they are looking to have children; older people are if they are close to retirement. And sadly, many disabled people probably are too.

What stories such as this remind us is that the economic system is made up of human beings for the benefit of human beings, yet it often appears to devalue and corrupt the inherent worth of certain people. This belief has been the basis of the Left's challenge to capitalism from Marx onwards, as it attempted to deal with the perceived 'dehumanising' elements of the market system.

Thus, minimum wage legislation is not about economic efficiency but about humanising our economy. It is about saying that while we are happy to accept that the market produces some inequalities, humans are equal in certains ways - across gender and disability, for example - that our economic system is not free to ignore.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Ideology and the death of principle

Whenever the Coalition is seen to be acting in a particularly neo-liberal and/or conservative way, it is instantly branded as acting 'ideologically'. The implementation of enormous public sector cuts, married tax allowance and the NHS reforms have all been castigated for being ideologically-driven. While I do not like the Coalition, I find it bizarre that we feel so affronted by the prospects of politicians who act out of principle. If political parties don't have any principles or values, what else can they act from?

The current expectation that politics should be an ideology-free zone seems to stem from the early days of New Labour, who believed that in order to win power it was necessary to convince the electorate that its policy-making process would be free from (left-wing) ideology. In the 1997 manifesto, Tony Blair proudly claimed that New Labour would not be driven by 'outdated ideology': what will count is what works.

'What counts is what works' subsequently became the leading mantra for New Labour as it drove forward a purported model of 'evidence-based policy'. However, there are two obvious problems with the idea of evidence-based policy. The first is that it believes that science can provide an objective answer of what policies to choose ('what works'); the second is that politics can be removed from the policy-making process in favour of objectivity and pragmatism ('what counts'). As New Labour and the electorate found out, scientific evidence cannot provide answers to difficult moral, political questions. Further, when we mistakenly claim that it can, we project an image of politics as a scientized, mechanistic and deeply unpolitical process.

Hence now, the Coalition's more overtly political reforms are attacked as being inspired by ideals, not evidence. Not only is conservative ideology attacked, but the whole idea of ideology itself - of principle and purpose - is mocked and discarded by critics. However, when we attack and dismiss ideology, we attack almost the central point of politics itself: that politicians and political parties should actually believe in something.

Yet the evidence-based view marches on. In a new book, the economist Tim Harford advocates an even more pragmatic approach to politics based upon trying new policy approaches irrespective of political principle. However, I think it is time to stand up for principle and values; when our politicians cease to believe in things, it is highly likely that we will too.

Scrounging off the poor - Labour and benefit bashing

According to the papers, Ed Miliband is set to make a speech today in which he attacks the 'something for nothing' culture which benefit fraud is a part of. This follows feedback from Labour's policy review that voters are socially conservative and want politicians to go far and wide on welfare reforms.

Subsequently, Ed Miliband looks to have fallen into the 'opinion poll trap': that politicians must pander to public opinion rather than seek to change it in line with their own principles.

Data on public attitudes however show this to be false. Look at the graph below. It show the proportion of respondents from the British Social Attitudes series that believe benefits for the unemployed are either (a) too low or (b) too high. The data show that there was once a time, before 1997, when the UK was a country predominantly sympathetic to those on benefits and believed in giving more financial support.

What is particularly interesting is the timing of this change in attitudes. It happened abruptly in 1998, when the percentage of people stating that unemployment benefit is too high jumped from around 30% to almost 50%. It dropped a little in subsequent years but in the early 2000s became the clear majority view.

In other words then, the emergence of an anti-benefits culture coincided with the election of New Labour who, let's not forget, put conditionality and responsibility at the heart of welfare reforms like the New Deals. New Labour, probably more than what it wished, changed public attitudes in line with its own changing stance on the welfare state.

This evidence shows a truth which seems long forgotten by political parties: that if you want to, you can change society. Ed Miliband does not have to pander to people's prejudices about the benefits system: he should challenge them and change them.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Adam Curtis - Two ideas which prevent a better world

This week was the end of the latest Adam Curtis documentary, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. I also re-watched his 2007 series, The Trap, which I remember watching back when I was at UCL during my second-year, when I think most of its meaning passed me by: this time it made much more sense.

The documentaries are powerful, complicated and contain deep philosophical and political ideas (in fact, it is to the BBC's utmost credit that they commission television like this in the age of the X Factor and Britain's Got Talent). They are also beautifully crafted films with a captivating use of music, archive footage and original interviews.

In terms of Curtis' message, there is one thing that strikes me particularly; this is that despite Curtis' overwhelmingly brutal analysis of modern society, I think he is an optimist about humanity and what we can achieve. In a way then, his films are biting critiques of the sources of power and ideology which prevent us from achieving more together and, ultimately, building a better world. The two series I've watched this week - The Trap and AWOBMOLAG - respectively explore two of these barriers to change:

1. The dominance of the negative view of liberty, which states that all governments can do is further the freedom of the individual to do precisely what they want.

In The Trap, Curtis explores how the ultimate goal of politics today is to further the simplistic vision of human freedom which equates it to the ability of individuals to do only as they please. He argues that two ideas contribute to this view of freedom. One is the economistic view of humans as entirely self-seeking, rational actors only interested in maximising their own preferences. The second view is that of Isaiah Berlin, who argued that any attempt to promote a positive view of liberty, where politics has a presence of clear purpose, is doomed to end in tyranny. Instead, all government should do is ensure that individuals are free from coercion, not emboldened with purpose.

2. The idea, promoted by the development of free markets, computer technology and the selfish gene theory, that human behaviour is determined and controlled by a natural network of systemic, machine-like forces far beyond our control.

I found the central thesis of AWOBMOLAG much less clear than The Trap. Yet in the end, Curtis brought all these themes together - from Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan to Richard Dawkins and William Hamilton - in the finale to the series, which stated that whether we are talking about markets, computers or genes, we have to come to accept a helpless vision of ourselves as part of machines beyond our control. I had a conversation with a friend recently, who compared humans to parasites, doomed to destroy the planet. This is an analogy which I think sums up the argument of Curtis in these films: that it doesn't always have to be this way, and as humans we have the power and agency to change things for the better.

I think that taken together, both of these documentaries point to one over-arching idea about the existing state of humanity: that we have effectively given up on any aspirations to change the world for the better, because it is effectively impossible, undesirable and beyond our very will. It is a harsh and unnerving view of the world, yet contains the hope and belief that it doesn't always have to be like this.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Why redistribute?

Labour leaders, from Atlee to Blair, have all favoured a form of income redistribution as a means of building a fairer society.

While the Labour leaders of old were more open - sometimes infamously so - about redistribution, New Labour was much less candid, favouring a controversial strategy of redistribution by stealth.

Although the New Labour approach was quite successful in boosting incomes at the bottom, its problem was its inherent deviousness. You can’t win an argument on fairness if you don’t allow the public to debate in the first place.

Moreover, there has always been a deeper problem with Labour’s commitment to redistribution, linked to the perceived purpose of what redistributing aims to achieve. In striving for a straightforward, linear redistribution from the pockets of rich to the pockets of the poor, there appears to a somewhat uninspiring moral vision.

And here’s why I think this is: redistribution, argued for in the name of fairness, tacitly accepts the nature of the society we find ourselves in. In other words, it is silent on the type of society which should be built and what a good society might look like. Progressives thus tend to agree with conservatives about the nature of how we live; we simply believe that some people should have more money to spend than others, as a matter of fairness and greater freedom.

However, when it adopts this approach, Labour ceases to articulate a vision of the society it wants to build. Redistribution fails to be an architectural tool to build a different society, instead it is a mechanical process, tinkering with what exists, rather than seeking to transform it altogether.

This is not an argument for abandoning redistribution as a policy aim. Rather, it is rethinking why we want to redistribute at all. Do we want to redistribute to correct for market unfairness, as Labour has argued in the past? Or, do we want to redistribute because inequality is damaging in another way, in how it estranges people from each other and makes us lead increasingly separate lives?

So while Old, New and Blue Labour would all support redistribution to build a more equal society, the policy consequences of a blue, communitarian programme would be qualitatively different. In the past, the social democratic understanding of the purpose of redistribution led to policies of a slight tax increase here, more tax credits there and perhaps a change in how we uprate benefits.

However, the aim of altering income distribution, and leaving it at that, ignores the real fallouts from a neo-liberal, Conservative society: individualism, decrepit community life, urban homogenization, the ascendancy of market morals and civic discord. While a fairer tax-benefit system is a noble endeavour, it does not address these problems on its own.

So if Labour wants to be Robin Hood, it should no longer simply seek to take from the rich and give to the poor. Yes, we should continue to argue that it is right to take from the rich, but instead propose to use the bounty in a different way. Rather than tampering with the tax system, we should offer a bolder claim on redistribution. As the philosopher Michael Sandel says, we should use redistribution for a:

"Consequential investment in an infrastructure for civic renewal: public schools to which rich and poor alike would want to send their children; public transportation systems reliable enough to attract upscale commuters; and public health clinics, playgrounds, parks, recreation centres, libraries and museums that would draw people out of their gated communities and into the common spaces of a shared democratic citizenship.”

So there it is. Redistribution to invest in the institutions which would build a shared, cohesive society with stronger relationships and better communities. I think most of us would agree that this offers a more convincing and powerful rationale for redistributing wealth than the arguments which the left has become accustomed to - and has espoused - for far too long.