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.