Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Are the unemployed getting unhappier?

A lot has been written and said about the rise in stigma attached to being unemployed.  This can come in different forms: either through shifting public attitudes against the welfare state or the constant media barrage against 'scroungers and dole cheats'.  The stigma of claiming benefits was brought to a wider public audience last week, with the publication of this new research by the charity Turn2us.  This heralds growing concern within activist, political and academic communities that the stigma of being on working-age benefits is reaching a dangerous tipping point.

One of the most commonly claimed consequences of increased stigma is a purported decline in the mental health of benefit claimants.  But how true are such claims?  To explore this further, I looked at 18 successive waves of the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS).  Most of all, I wanted to know whether the average well-being of the unemployed has been declining over time, as the welfare state has got tougher and public attitudes less tolerant.

In the BHPS,  well-being is measured by the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ): a scale ranging from 0 to 36 that weights answers given to questions on a range of dimensions of psychological distress, such as poor concentration, loss of sleep, feelings of strain, loss of confidence and feelings of unhappiness and depression.  Crucially, higher well-being is represented by a low GHQ score and lower well-being by a high GHQ score.  Thus, if the average GHQ score for unemployed people is going up, it means their mental well-being is going down.

The results are shown in the graph below, which shows the mean GHQ score for each of the 18 waves of the BHPS.  At first, the graph doesn't seem too revelatory: well-being doesn't seem to have worsened particularly noticeably.

Figure 1. Mean GHQ score for unemployed people, waves 1-18 of the BHPS

However, if we pick apart the data a bit more forensically, we find that there are some solid signs that the unemployed are getting unhappier.  For example, the average GHQ score across all 18 years for unemployed people is 12.7: and this figure gives us a benchmark to assess whether more recent GHQ scores tend to be higher than the average across the whole series.

What we see is that they clearly are.  In the next graph, each year in which the recorded mean GHQ for the unemployed was above the overall average for the complete series is highlighted in big, bright red markers. Here, what we see is that in the second half of the time series - after Wave 9 - we see the well-being of the unemployed score higher-than-average GHQ on five occasions, compared to just two times pre-Wave 9.  And further, three of these occasions come in the final four, most recent waves of the surveys (15, 16 and 18).

Figure 2. Average GHQ score for unemployed people, waves 1-18 of the BHPS. 
Higher than average scores marked in red, with the total mean (12.7) marked by the horizontal black line

If we pick this apart even further, we can see that the average GHQ for Waves 1-9 is 12.5.   Crucially, the average GHQ for Waves 10-18 is 12.9.  I think this is a good (albeit tentative) indicator that over the past twenty years, the function of unemployment on people's mental health has been slowly, but perhaps surely, intensifying in its negative effect.

Why this might be is a matter for debate.  To my mind, it is an all likelihood a consequence of two trends.  First, as real benefit levels have fallen over time, the economic reality of unemployment has become increasingly precarious.

Second, and this is where my own research comes in, I would argue that the psychological impact of unemployment has also worsened.  There is now more shame attached to claiming benefits and a public who increasingly consider unemployment the fault of the individual.  Further, unemployed people are regularly faced with a constant stream of negative associations - from the press, politicians and in some instances their neighbours.  The combined effect of the intensified economic and psychosocial stress of unemployment appears - according to statistics like these - to have made unemployment a bigger burden to carry.  And a more miserable place to be.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Should policy promote well-being?

The ONS has released a new publication in its series on measuring national well-being.  Cue the now predictable and trite criticisms.  Waste of money.  Voters care about other things.  Cameron's vanity project.

A more interesting criticism is whether or not the state should promote policies that explicitly and deliberately try to promote well-being.  Libertarians tend to argue that it is not the role of the state to decide what makes people happy.  Yet this is a deceitful argument.  At its root, libertarianism is the belief that individual freedom - mostly from the state -  will maximise people's well-being.  If it didn't, it would be a futile ideology.

So, should well-being be an official objective of policy?  If so, this would involve a major reorientation of social policy.  Since the creation of the modern welfare state, I think there have been three objectives to policy: reducing material want, spreading greater freedom and supporting economic growth.  Even more traditionally social goals - reducing inequality for example - have often been justified by these three objectives, rather than for their impact on well-being.

Spreading greater well-being seems like an obvious goal of policy, but there are a number of problems here.  In particular, the increasing use of social science evidence to show the determinants of well-being raises some interesting debates.  For example, we know from social surveys that married people and religious people tend to be happier than those who are single and atheist.  Does this mean that government show use policy to promote marriage and religion?

My own doctoral research crosses such debates.  In short, I'm interested in whether unemployed people who are on welfare-to-work programmes have higher levels of well-being than unemployed people who aren't (the 'openly unemployed'). My preliminary findings suggest that welfare-to-work participants are happier.  But is this a strong argument that the government should put more of the unemployed on welfare-to-work schemes?  Campaign groups against welfare-to-work - such as Boycott Workfare - invoke other arguments: the denial of basic rights, the wrongful subsidy of multinationals and so on.  This shows that well-being is not the only goal of policy, and needs to balanced against other concerns.

Ultimately, emphasising that policy should promote well-being is an important and good development.  It makes us look beyond the usual indicators - GDP, inflation, household incomes - and consider how people actual feel about their lives.  Yet as we increasingly discover the determinants of well-being, we are left with awkward questions.  What if what makes us happy, many of those don't like the idea of the state promoting?

Friday, 5 October 2012

'One Nation Labour': all things to all people?

I really enjoyed Ed Miliband's speech to the Labour conference on Tuesday.  As someone who's keen on the ideas of 'Blue Labour', I felt the speech was a culmination of two years of ideas around the need for Ed Miliband to move beyond both 'New Labour' and more traditional social democratic concerns, and towards a more communitarian strand of social democracy.

But then, looking at the response to the speech, everyone seemed happy.  New Labour types starting comparing Ed to the 1994 Tony Blair.  The Labour Left celebrated his attack on the banks and promotion of the NHS.  And the more traditional, centre-left social democrats cheered on the attack on inequality and social divisions.

The broad appeal of the speech led me to think: does 'One Nation' mean all things to all people?  How is it possible, in other words, to philosophically appeal to such a broad spectrum within the Labour Party?  Was it just that people saw whatever they liked in the speech and claimed it for themselves?

These worries were confirmed when I saw this story on what 'One Nation Labour' would mean for the welfare state.  Intuitively, I thought it would involve a celebration and defence of universality and contribution and an attack on means-testing.  Means-testing is socially divisive and pits tax-paying non-beneficiaries against non-tax-paying beneficiaries.  Given that 'One Nation' is supposed to be all about reducing social divisions and uniting people, how does means-testing fit in with this concept and vision of social life?

Yet apparently, means-testing universal benefits for pensioners - such as winter fuel payments - is 'One Nation Labour'. To my mind however, rewarding pensioners for decades of work with something like a bus pass or a fuel payment is an important way for society to show an appreciation and honouring of a person's life contribution.  It says that the welfare state is for all - for 'one nation' - not just for the poor - for 'two nations'.

Ed Miliband's speech was striking in the positivity of its vision.  And successful too in baring for all the nasty divisiveness that typifies Cameron's conservatism.  Yet New Labour worked because its political philosophy matched a set of policies: investments in health and education; an 'active' welfare state; early-years support; marketization of public services.  Now, we need a clearer demonstration from Labour of how 'One Nation' relates to policy, and why.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Ed Miliband and predistribution: what does it mean and could it work?

Mark Ferguson at Labour List writes about Ed Miliband's new 'big idea': predistribution.  This is the idea that the market, rather than the state, should be the primary mechanism for delivering a fairer distribution of wealth.  In other words, people's wages should be more equal in the first place - so that the state has less need to intervene through the tax and benefit system.

The advantages of predistribution over redistribution are numerous.  First and most obviously, higher equality and lower poverty could be achieved whilst the state spends less money.  In a time when the electorate highly associates Labour with 'profligate spending', predistribution thus becomes highly attractive.

A second advantage of predistribution is that it's more attuned to many people's notions of fairness and redistributive justice.  To redistribute income through the state you need high levels of solidarity, trust and feelings of reciprocity.  For many complex reasons, we lack these in the UK.  This makes high redistribution - akin to the Scandinavian model - politically untenable.

Predistribution is not a completely new idea.  For those familiar with The Spirit Level, the example of Japan will be remembered.  Japan is one the most equal countries in the OECD world, yet it achieves this with levels of public spending more like the US than Sweden.  How?  Predistribution.  Wages are already more equal in Japan, so the state has less of a need to intervene.  Alternatively, the market distribution of wages in Scandinavia is much more like the market distribution in the US and the UK.  The Scandinavian approach then relies upon the state - in the form of high taxes, generous social transfers and quality services - to achieve a fairer society.

It sounds like a panacea - both for the economic problems the country faces and the political and philosophical impasse that Labour finds itself in.  But it's potentially not.  As Mark Ferguson writes, in a predistribution state that ensures high equality and low poverty through the market, there is the question of what happens to those excluded from the market: such as the disabled and the unemployed.

The second problem is even more profound.  This is that the UK economy is not built for predistribution.  Over the past three decades, successive governments have built a labour market that is high in flexibility but low - at the bottom end - in wages, skills and in productivity.  The problem is that predistribution only works in a high skill, high productivity labour market.

This is why the classic predistribution policy - the minimum wage - has an economic limit in a labour market like the UK's.  Increase it too much, and either unemployment will increase or prices go up - or both.  If Ed Miliband is to make predistribution a real policy goal, he'll need to flesh out how he would fundamentally restructure the British labour market.  And this will be the real challenge.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Are religious people more or less likely to support redistribution in the welfare state?

We are all familiar with many of the characteristics that distinguish people who support the welfare state and those who don't.  We might expect, for example, left-wing voters, women with children, ethnic minorities and the poor to be amongst the most consistent supporters of welfare.  But what is the role of religion?  Are religious more or less likely to support welfare measures - such as income redistribution - than their non-religious counterparts?

This is the question posed in this interesting new study in the European Sociological Review.  Before reading the paper, my intuition was that religious people would be more likely to support redistribution. This might be because religion, or more its purported values - charity, altruism, cooperation, community - seem more aligned with the kind of values associated with support for the welfare state.

However, the authors propose a different hypothesis: that religious people are less likely to support redistribution.  They suggest that this antagonism may be due to the historic transition between the church and state in the responsibility for social welfare, with the former and its devotees unhappy at the diluting of religion's responsibility for welfare.

In short, it transpires that this second hypothesis is true: religious people are significantly less likely to support redistribution than secular individuals, even after a whole host of other variables are controlled for.  The influence of religion on anti-redistributionist attitudes is equivalent to having a higher income or being more highly educated, with these latter two determinants also linked to weak support for redistribution.

I found these results surprising, but my (mistaken) intuition might say more about perceptions of religion in the UK.  Cities with strong Catholic communities - such as Liverpool and Glasgow - tend to be overwhelmingly associated with the Left.  And, as the old saying goes, Labour owed more to Methodism than to Marx.  This interesting study suggests the contrary.  The Conservatives might owe more to the Church than to Churchill.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Is it possible to make social security popular again?

I recently came across Ben Baumberg's paper - 'Three ways to defend social security in Britain' - in the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice.  It is an interesting read and, in short, assesses the success that three recent contributions to the social security debate have had in meeting what Ben argues are the necessary conditions required to improve the quality of social security.  These are that policies:

  • Lead to reductions in poverty and inequality.
  • Fit existing public attitudes on the deservingness of claimants.
  • Aim to, in the long run, change such attitudes on deservingness.
Without going into great detail, Ben's central contention is that the challenge facing those who desire to make social security better is as follows.  First, there is a need to engage with existing public perceptions of 'who deserves what'.  Second, however, there is a need to ensure that engagement does not become accommodation; and that, in the long run, wider public notions of deservingness are changed.  Such a strategy will clearly involve a high degree of skilful political and policy manoeuvring. 

Can it be done?

The message then is that the kind of welfare state many on the Left would like - generous, supportive, personalised, popular - will not come over night.  And to achieve it, there must be a genuine engagement with the public: many of whom do not appear to like social security very much at all.

The key to this dilemma seems to lie somewhere in dealing with the realm of contribution and reciprocity.  The lack of engagement with these concerns is what Ben Baumberg criticises about the first two contributions he reviews: Decent Childhoods and National Salary Insurance.  The third - The Solidarity Society - attempts to deal with this dilemma (of engaging with, acquiring and changing public attitudes) much more centrally.

The problem that remains is how to rethink the relationship between social security and contribution/reciprocity without merely falling back to old ideas about social insurance or capitulating to seemingly popular notions of 'tough conditionality'.  Ben's argument is that such change will only happen in stages and that this will require engaging with the public whilst also leaving the scope open for future progress.

My own thought is that this could be partly achieved with a rethinking of conditionality (at least for claimants of JSA).  This could involve, for example, higher benefit payments to claimants who enrol on training, education, work experience or community placements.  To my mind this would a) reduce poverty, b) engage with existing public concerns of deservingness and c) change attitudes in the long-term.  

The latter is the hardest task that the Left faces with regards to social security.  Yet I would argue that a shift in rewarding claimants' contributions with higher payments would emphasise to the public what claimants do whilst they are unemployed, rather than what they don't do.  The obvious fact is that many present claimants are contributing in a wide variety of ways, yet because this is not rewarded, it goes unnoticed: and the public emphasis remains unchanged.  

As Ben argues rightly, focusing on conditionality carries certain dangers: such as that future governments will simply revert back to the type of conditionality on offer now.   Yet we have to see a better welfare state as a long-term goal.  As Margaret Thatcher found out, her goal of a worse welfare state did not come about immediately.  It took years of subtle changes to public and political debate.  Little rewards could offer big hopes.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Why does unemployment make people want to die?

This is an article about suicide.  If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts there are places you can go for support. Find out more on the Mind website or call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.


Today saw the release of a new study in the British Medical Journal that shows how the rate of suicide has increased during the recession in the UK (link to paper here).  Importantly, a key finding in the study is that for every 10 per cent rise in unemployment, there is an associated 1.4 per cent increase in suicide.

This finding confirms the results of many previous studies: that unemployment is psychologically damaging and tends to increase the risk of suicide.  Indeed, it has been nothing but bad news for the unemployed during the past few weeks.  In July, the ONS released their major findings on subjective well-being; showing that the unemployed are one of the most unhappiest groups of all.

Why is unemployment such a miserable experience?

The question of why unemployment increases risk of suicide (and other harmful health behaviours) has been a key question in the social sciences for some time.  This is not necessarily an obvious question to ask.  Economists have tended to assume that leisure is good and work is a burden.  Since the unemployed have copious amounts of leisure, shouldn't they have decent levels of happiness?

The answer shown in studies like the BMJ one is definitely not.  And so explanations and theories have been proposed.  The most obvious explanation is income: i.e.: unemployment has a tendency to intensify experiences of low income and poverty.  This is especially true of the UK, which has a social security system with very low income replacement rates.

The second most obvious explanation is that it has nothing to do with unemployment at all.  This is the idea that people with physical and mental health problems are more likely to end up unemployed anyway.  Unemployment just happens to be a common experience and has nothing to do with the problems it's strongly correlated with.

The psychosocial environment of unemployment

While these two explanations are important, many studies have found that unemployment does have a causal relationship with the psychological problems associated with it.  Further, this important study by Winkelmann and Winkelmann found that unemployment had a harmful effect irrespective of income and that its psychosocial effects - rather than its economic ones - were of prime importance.

So what is so psychologically damaging about unemployment, for most people who experience it?  Marie Jahoda's theory of latent deprivation, developed in the 1980s, is still probably the most well-known psychological explanation.  Jahoda argued that employment fulfilled a range of psychological requirements she called 'latent functions': time structure, social activity, collective endeavour, regular activity, status and identity.

The problem with unemployment then is that it deprives people of 'latent functions' that are so valuable for mental well-being.  Jahoda's theory has come under some criticism since.  Most notably from David Fryer, who argued that unemployment is damaging because it restricts a person's sense of agency and autonomy.  And, to my mind, there is certainly something to be said about the way in which unemployment is socially constructed and, consequently, stigmatized.  Yet Jahoda's theory remains a good example of the kind of non-pecuniary benefits people acquire from work.  And the potential dangers of losing these benefits through a spell of unemployment.

What can we do about it?

If unemployment does have these effects, what can we do about it?  All in all, I would suggest three policy responses:

  • Increase the value of unemployment benefits.  We still know that low income is a major problem for unemployed people, especially in the UK with the very low rate of JSA.
  • Do much more to keep people in work. We also know that for many people, work is psychologically beneficial.  Doing more to keep people in jobs should similarly be a policy objective.
  • Invest more in better active labour market policies.  The potential of active labour market policies (or welfare-to-work ) to improve the experience of unemployment is still relatively unknown.  There is some evidence to suggest these policies do have beneficial social outcomes - and this is something my own PhD research is focusing on.  This would involve providing more services to unemployment people, such as work experience schemes, training and education.
Finally though, beneath the public policy and statistics these are ultimately tragic human stories.  What they remind us of - and what governments seem to have ignored - is that unemployment is never a price worth paying.


Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Young researchers beware: potential scams, paying for articles and David Publishing

Soon after the recent Social Policy Association (SPA) conference at York, I received an e-mail from an American publishing company called David Publishing.  The e-mail said that one of David Publishing's journals - the Journal of US-China Public Administration - was interested in potentially publishing my SPA conference paper (link here).

My initial reaction was to be quite excited by the letter.  This was a paper I worked on for my MSc last year, had put lots of work in to and had since been rejected by a couple of social science journals.  After the SPA conference I was convinced about finally putting the paper to bed, which - after a lot of hard work - was a tough decision to make.

So the e-mail from David Publishing looked (initially at least) very promising.  However, when I actually read through the e-mail for a second time, the alarm bells began to ring.  The letter seemed to be worded rather strangely.  For example, as you can see from below, the letter stated that the Journal 'hoped to become friends' with me.  This certainly wasn't what I've been used to with previous journal experience.

So (like all good academics would) I did a bit more research: on the journal and the publishing company.  The website for David Publishing seemed a bit odd with, again, lots of poor English.  Another blog I found by a researcher who had been contacted by the same publishing house said that they were actually based in China and could potentially be a front for Chinese researchers to get published in 'American' journals.

I also read rumours of David Publishing charging authors to publish their paper - and this is what really riled me.  Young researchers - most on low bursaries - are often desperate to get those first couple of journal articles under their belt to establish their careers.  Deliberately approaching young researchers and offering to publish their work - and then subsequently charging them for it - seemed to be deeply cynical and exploitative.

So I contacted David and asked them do they charge.  Their e-mail response is posted below.  David Publishing charge $50 per page for a journal article.  If you consider most journal articles are between 10 to 20 pages long, this means that a researcher could end up paying between $500 to $1000 dollars to publish their paper.

Although some reputable publishing houses do charge for publication, deliberately targeting PhD students with the objective of taking up to $1000 from them for an article seems wrong to me.  By approaching young researchers, David Publishing are engaging in an exploitative practice, purposefully targeting eager, ambitious yet in all likelihood naive researchers; most of whom are not yet versed in how some quarters of the publishing world are happy to take advantage of them.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

'Test, Learn, Adapt' - thoughts on the use of RCTs in social policy

Today, the Cabinet Office's 'nudge unit' has produced a new document advocating the greater use of randomised control trials (RCTs) in the policy-making process.  With 'Bad Science' writer Ben Goldacre on the team, it's received a fair bit of press, so I thought I'd review it and offer my own opinion on their key argument.

The argument
The thesis behind the paper is simple.  RCTs have been used in a range of other fields for some time - medicine, international development and business for example.  However, they have not been adapted to the policy-making process so enthusiastically.  Despite the early New Labour focus on 'what counts is what works', governments maintain the habit of ignoring scientific evidence on policy interventions.  The authors argue that this should change: if it does, we might get better policies and at a significantly cheaper cost.

Sounds too good to be true?
That's because it is.  In my view, the report rehashes old arguments about the use of 'scientific' evidence  in social policy.  The authors appear to come from a very one-sided scientific perspective: unaware of the long-established difficulties - particularly in social policy - of the interaction between science and society, politics and morality.  In fact, in their discussion of the 'myths' about RCTs, the authors focus exclusively on practical or economic objections, rather than any philosophical doubt about using scientific evidence to decide on policies.

The authors offer a deeply tempting and seductive view: that we can determine what policies we choose by scientific methods, removing age-old ideological debates about the Good Society once and for all.  Not only is it wrong to equate the objectives of social policy to other institutions, like medicine, but to my mind it seems quite undesirable.  Sure, we can use scientific methods like RCTs to choose between different policy interventions.  But first we have to decide what type of interventions we want in the first place.  And that requires debates and deliberations that science simply cannot answer.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Is the UK alone in turning against the welfare state?

In a paper I recently had published in the journal Social Policy and Society,  I looked at longitudinal data from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) to explore how attitudes to the welfare state - and in particular the unemployed - had changed over the past few decades.  The data show a strong and profound shift in attitudes against welfare.  Whilst once a majority of us tended to support more spending on benefits, there is now a solid consensus against extra spending on social security (especially for 'undeserving' groups like the unemployed).

In my paper, I try to offer an explanation for why this happened.  In short, I argue that the growth in anti-welfare attitudes has followed the deep and significant reforms to the welfare system that have taken place since the mid-1990s: stronger conditionality, sanctioning and the growing emphasis on personal responsibility.

However, this is not a particularly easy argument to prove one way or another.  I argue that the main basis supporting this theory is the timing of the attitudinal shift: around 1997/8 (or when New Labour came to power with a promise to change the welfare state).

Is this the only explanation?

An alternative hypothesis is that the UK has not been alone in its changing attitudes to welfare.  For example, it could be argued that anti-welfarism here is part of a broader, global trend in attitudes that come as a function of the shift to post-industrial (and largely neo-liberal) societies in the rich world.

One way to test this argument is to look at comparable, cross-national data on attitudes towards the welfare state.  This is not particularly easy: it's difficult to find attitudinal data that has been collected consistently over time and for a decent sample of countries.  There is one dataset though - the International Social Survey Programe - that might be able to give us some clues.

One question the ISSP asks concerns attitudes towards state generosity for the unemployed.  The question is:

"The Government should provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed" Do you strongly agree/agree/neither/disagree/strongly disagree?

This question was asked to respondents in five countries in both 1987 and 2010: Austria, Australia, Germany, the UK and the US.  This is a small sample but an interesting one: it contains three countries from 'liberal' welfare regime types (Australia, the UK and the US) and two from 'conservative' ones (Austria and Germany).  Comparing these five countries for the two time-points should allow us to see if there are any similarities (or differences) between the regime types in terms of changing attitudes towards supporting the unemployed.  It should also suggest whether shifting attitudes are universal, rather than a sole feature of British society.

A universal shift?

The results are quite surprising.  Here is a table that shows the proportion of respondents stating that they either 'strongly agree' or 'agree' that the Government should provide a 'decent standard of living for the unemployed':

A quick glance should tell you that only the UK and Germany have seen a drop in support for supporting the unemployed.  Indeed, even the US has seen a (slight) increase in agreement with decent public support the unemployed.  Here's a graph showing the percentage change between 1987 and 2010:

This kind of data is by no means conclusive: it's based on just one question for a sample of five countries.  But it does suggest two things.  First, that the shift against welfare in the UK - evidenced in domestic surveys like the BSA - is also evident in global, comparative surveys.  Second - and perhaps most importantly - other countries have seemingly had completely different experiences.

This is important.  In Britain, it's often implied by politicians and reformists that welfare retrenchment is inevitable: that it comes part and parcel of a new kind of economy and a changing society.  According to this theory however, other countries should also be undergoing the same kinds of cultural shifts.  The data shown above suggest the picture is more complex.  And that the future of the welfare state is much more uncertain than many of us think.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Welfare: it's not just how much you spend, it's what you spend it on

In an earlier post, I argued that in a time of high unemployment, governments have attached higher levels of importance to so-called 'activation' policies (ALMPS or welfare-to-work measures) that aim to boost and speed up people's return to work.  The data I showed demonstrated how, in comparative terms, the UK spends a small proportion of its national wealth on such policies.  In 2009 for example, we spent just 0.4 per cent of GDP on ALMPs.  The comparable figure for Denmark is nearly 1.2 per cent.

However, this paper by Giuliano Bonoli makes a crucial point: it's not just how much you spend, it's what you spend it on.  In short, Bonoli argues that there are four different 'policies within policies' when it comes to welfare-to-work:

  • Occupation: or 'keeping people busy' (e.g. job creation schemes, community programmes)
  • Incentive reinforcenment: or 'carrots and sticks' (e.g. sanctions, conditionality, tax credits)
  • Employment assistance: or 'jobseeking help' (e.g. placement advice, counselling, personalisation)
  • Upskilling: or 'training' (e.g. vocational courses)

Using data from the OECD, Bonoli compares how the structure of spending varies between countries on three of these policies: employment assistance, occupation ('direct job creation') and upskilling ('training'). Differentiating between such policies is important; most of us would agree, I think, that a more effective and fairer approach would be one that combined different elements of all three 'active' components.

The results are shown in the table below, taken from Bonoli's paper.  What the table shows is that not only does the UK spend much less than other countries when it comes to welfare-to-work, but it spends most of its budget on 'employment assistance': a policy basically limited to trying to better place unemployed people within existing jobs.

As is clear, other countries - most notably Denmark, Sweden and France - spend almost half of their welfare-to-work budget on training.  In the UK, the equivalent figure seems almost non-existent: indeed, the Conservative governments of the 1980s appeared to spend far more on training than either New Labour or the Coalition.

In times of high unemployment, there is only so far 'employment assistance' programmes - such as those that the UK government is hugely fond of - can go.  All such programmes attempt to do is make the 'matching' process faster and more efficient; they do nothing to create jobs or genuinely improve the mismatch between labour supply and demand.  Training programmes, alternatively, are capable of doing both of these things.  It's high time the government reassessed its welfare-to-work strategy to put training at its heart.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Welfare should reward contribution

A copy of this article originally appeared in Shifting Grounds 
Academics in social policy like to talk about three different types of ‘welfare state regime’. At one end of the spectrum we have the Nordic regimes: characterised by generous, universal benefits that are paid out as of right. At the other end we have the liberal regimes, where benefits are low (more or less subsistence level), means-tested and highly conditional. In between are the continental systems, where the contributory principle rules the roost.
The conundrum that Labour finds itself in is that of an increasingly liberal British welfare state. For decades the UK was more of a hybrid system, with distinct elements of all three principles: means-testing, contribution and universality. Over time though, liberal principles have taken over the welfare state and, perhaps inevitably, it is the Conservatives who are now seen as the party of welfare.
Labour thus faces two options on its welfare policy. The first is to keep ceding ground to the Coalition. This involves challenging the technical details of welfare reforms but accepting them in principle. This is the position Labour often seems to adopt and, as opinion polls show, it isn’t working.
The second option is to go beyond the liberal model of means-testing, low benefits and high conditionality. Indeed, many Labour members would like to jump straight from liberal welfare to social democratic welfare; where entitlement is universal and poverty minimal. For complex political, economic and cultural reasons, this is not going to happen – at least not overnight.
This means that if Labour wants to change – and strengthen – the welfare state it must look to ideas from elsewhere. This is where the continental system of welfare can help, with its prioritising of the contributory principle. Ed Miliband and Liam Byrne, among others on the Labour front benches, have recently shown their willingness to make it the basis of future policy. Now we need to put meat on the bones.
There are two imperatives for Labour going forward: in considering each, it becomes clear that the problem with Britsh welfare is not ‘something-for-nothing’ but ‘nothing-for-something’. The state needs to do more to recognise people’s contribution and hard work.
First then, Labour should make welfare more attractive to the middle-classes. Middle-class people support welfare when it offers them something back for their contributions. At the moment, the race to the bottom in welfare provision means that people with long records of contributions get the same as those with none. Labour’s first offer on welfare should be to establish a strong contributory principle. If you have worked for twenty years and become unemployed, you should get a decent benefit that ensures you avoid financial hardship. We should still offer basic support to young people and those without contributions, but there should be a clear principle at the heart of the welfare state: when you need it, you will get the support you have paid for.
So establishing a principle of contribution should be a priority for Labour. The next question then is how to apply this to those not covered by social insurance: young people, those with poor work histories or those who have spent time caring.
The policy response from the Coalition towards such groups has been to introduce a raft of compulsory work-based schemes with the threat of removing benefits for those who fail to comply. Participation in such schemes might – or might not – be good for unemployed people, but threats, punishments and coercion do little to strengthen the principles of contribution, reciprocity and responsibility.
Instead of threatening to punish claimants, Labour should offer to reward those who contribute whilst experiencing a spell of unemployment. If you volunteer for community work, find a work experience placement or enrol on a six-week training course, you should be rewarded with a stronger benefit: JSA Plus, for example. In return for making a contribution, you get something back. These two offers are about equal responsibilities throughout the welfare state: or, as Ed Miliband might prefer to say, a ‘something-for-something’ society.
Rather than ‘something-for-nothing’, the problem with welfare is the ‘nothing-for-something’ experience that most people have. Whether that’s paying decades worth of contributions and getting a measly benefit or undertaking compulsory work experience whilst looking for a job, most people sense the state isn’t doing its bit, despite asking them to do theirs. If Labour really wants to mark its ground with a ‘something-for-something’ welfare state, then we must look turn the tables, and look more closely at why so many people feel the state does nothing.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Why Labour should support an 'annual taxpayer statement'

In tomorrow's budget, it is expected that George Osborne will announce plans to issue annual personal tax statements in order to let citizens know precisely where their tax gets spent.  So far, the issue has been set up as one of left versus right, with some conservative commentators clearly believing the policy to be a route to lower taxes.

The theory is that if people know more specifically where their taxes go, they will be less content to pay them.  Indeed, the left-wing tax researcher Richard Murphy was on Radio 5 Live today predicting that this is precisely what will happen.  But such arguments are predicated on a misunderstanding: that 'unpopular' areas of spending, such as unemployment benefits, receive an undesirable proportion of the income tax pie.

On the Guardian's website today, there is a wonderful interactive tool which smashes these myths.  It shows how much an individual spends per day on public services (based on their income).  If we take the average salary - around £25,000 per year - we can see exactly what services cost the average taxpayer on a daily basis.

According to the Guardian's tool, here are the three most expensive services and what they cost per day for the average person:

  1. Health - £4.88 per day
  2. Education (including universities) - £3.77
  3. Pensions - £3.59
And here are the daily costs for three services we might consider much less popular:

  1. Unemployment benefits - £0.24
  2. Housing -  £0.14
  3. The EU - -£0.13 (meaning the average taxpayer gains 13p a day from EU membership)

What does all this tell us?  In my view, it shows us - perhaps unsurprisingly for those on the left - that the things which cost the most money are the services that benefit us all and that we most appreciate: health, education and pensions.  On the other hand, it's clear from data like this that taxpayers are not spending inordinate sums on small numbers of 'undeserving' groups.  The average earner, for example, pays just £7.30 per month to support the ever-swelling ranks of the unemployed.

Conservatives cheerily urging Osborne on with this policy might care to think again.  In future years, taxpayers might receive their annual statement from the Chancellor and think they don't get too bad a deal.  The parent of a secondary school child will see that it costs them just £252 per year to send their children to school; a snip compared to private sector rates.  Equally, we might end up realising how little we spend on needy groups.  Is it fair, for example, that all we contribute towards survivors is 8p a day?  Taken together, the public might end up thinking that the state actually does an efficient job at providing good services, while also believing the public could do a bit more for those in need.  

For years Labour has been shackled by strange and paradoxical public attitudes towards the state.  As the adage goes, the British public want Swedish social services at American rates of tax.  One reason for this might be the misconception that the UK government spends unfairly and unwisely.  Personal tax statements might be one way to combat such misconceptions that have, over a long period of time, been detrimental to British social democracy.  For that reason, Labour should support the Coalition in implementing this measure.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Is workfare all bad? Some evidence from Sweden

The debate about 'workfare' - defined as requiring benefit claimants to participate in some form of work-based activity - has raged this past week.  But the debate has largely been clouded by hyperbole from both   those for and against.  Depending on your position, you are either likely to see the claimants involved as slaves or scroungers.

In times like this it's helpful to have some evidence on the matter at hand.  A key argument against workfare is the humiliation it might involve for participants.  Working for huge, profit-making companies like Tesco for around £1 an hour - whilst those around you get paid 6x as much - is hardly good for self-esteem.

But what if this argument is wrong?  What if participating in work-based schemes is actually good for unemployed people and boosts their well-being, confidence and self-esteem?  This is the question posed in this paper from 2001 by Strandh, who considered whether participation in employment programmes boosted the well-being of participants in Sweden.

The theory that such programmes might be good for unemployed people is based upon arguments from social psychology that work fulfils certain human functions, like time structure, social contacts and collective endeavour.  Consequently, while workfare programmes might not ease the economic woe of unemployment, they may help the unemployed overcome the more psychological damage wrought by being unemployed.

In short, Strandh explored three different types of work-based programme: vocational training, work experience schemes (which take place outside the labour market, e.g. community work) and workplace participation.  It is this latter type of Swedish programme - workplace participation - which is most similar to the Coalition's workfare programme, as it involves unemployed people gaining experience in an ordinary labour market setting.

What Strandh wanted to know was whether participation in these schemes was associated with better well-being for participants (compared to those who didn't participate).  The results are quite surprising - especially given the furore of the past week.  In short, when controlling for a range of other factors, Strandh found that participation in work-based programmes was significantly associated with higher well-being amongst unemployed participants.

Further - and this is where it gets interesting - out of the three different types of programme Strandh looked at, he found that the programme with the strongest effect was the 'workplace participation' scheme (e.g., the one most similar in theory to the workfare scheme here).  Indeed, the 'vocational training' scheme had no effect on well-being.  The positive consequences of workplace participation schemes were even stronger for those who had been unemployed for a year or more, while the other two types of programme had zero effect for this group.

It's true that comparing Swedish programmes to British ones might be like comparing apples with oranges - and I'm also not suggesting that current Government policy is the right one.  But studies like Strandh's show that requiring unemployed people to participate in work-based programmes has the potential to have positive outcomes.  We thus need a much more nuanced debate in the UK. One which isn't about whether conditionality is 'right or wrong', but what about which conditionality is right and which conditionality is wrong.

Using Jahoda's theory of employment to understand the psychology of a PhD

Half the challenge of a PhD seems to be psychology.  Chats with other students about PhD life invariably revolve around the more psychological aspects of work.  Problems seem to centre less around the actual content of study but more about the actuality of doing it: structuring the day, keeping motivated, overcoming barriers and so on.

For my own PhD I'm exploring the psychosocial effects of unemployment and, more specifically, how welfare policies can help mediate these effects.  One key theorist in the literature is Jahoda (1982), who argues that one of the reasons why unemployment is so mentally damaging is because the process of work fulfils five key functions:
  1. Time structure
  2. Social contacts
  3. Participation in collective purpose
  4. Status and identity
  5. Regular activity
Whilst reading Jahoda, I began to think that this theory might go some way into explaining the psychology of a PhD.  I don't think PhD students have any problem with no.4, status and identity, but I think Jahoda's other four 'psychosocial functions of employment' are challenged whilst doing a PhD. Structuring time is perhaps the most common problem cited by PhD students: the days are long and empty and it's solely up to you to fill them productively and efficiently.  Having social contact is an exception, not a rule.  Whilst our PhDs are contributing to a wider, collective knowledge, most of the time PhDs can feel highly narrow and individualised.  Finally, having regular activity can also be problematic, especially, I imagine, for first-year students engaging almost solely with the literature base.

While PhDs do present a challenge, understanding why this is - as  I think Jahoda's theory helps us to - can enable students to overcome these hurdles.  Structuring the day, linking up with fellow academics with similar interests and making the effort to attend conferences, lectures and workshops may just help us feel slightly - just slightly - like members of the real world.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

A 'Spirit Level' Britain?

In an interview with the Guardian this week, Ken Livingstone praised Ed Miliband as the man to make make us a 'Spirit Level Britain'.  Despite this being a rather cringeworthy turn of phrase, Livingstone makes a key argument: that Labour must strive to make Britain a more equal society in its income distribution

New Labour didn't believe that income equality was important.  As far as Blair et al were concerned, what mattered was raising the economic condition of the poorest; as long as that improved, the rich could be as rich as they wanted to be.  More traditional social democrats baulked at this easiness with inequality but grudgingly accepted it: the economy was booming and New Labour was able to utilise tax revenue to boost incomes at the bottom.

Now the economy isn't booming.  And in addition, we have lots of evidence that high levels of income inequality are linked to a range of health and social problems.  So what Livingstone is saying is that it's time Labour revisited inequality and, presumably, proposed policies which aim to reduce it.

How can this be done?

In The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett argue that there are two central paths to greater equality.

First, Labour could pursue the path taken by the Scandinavian countries.  This involves accepting a highly unequal labour market but using the welfare state to redistribute from rich to poor.  Could this work in Britain?  I don't think so: we have a much more liberal attitude to earning money and many - even people on modest incomes - don't like the idea of the state 'penalising hard work'.  Further, with such hostile attitudes to many of those who would benefit from a more redistributive state, it seems politically untenable and would require deep cultural change.

The second way to greater equality is how Japan achieves it: through a more equal labour market, with no need for the state to intervene with people's incomes.  But as Wilkinson and Pickett admit on their website, market incomes are relatively equal in Japan because of how their companies are structured and ran.  To ape this in the UK would require deep economic change and could certainly not happen over night.

Is there a third option?

If these two ways of achieving greater equality are hard to envisage in the UK, is there a third option available to the centre-left?

One solution might be to consider the ideas of a basic income.  In short, a basic income involves the state provision of a grant to each citizen and is paid unconditionally.  Whilst I don't think a full basic income is economically viable nor morally desirable, some variation of it could provide the Left with a solid plan for building a more equal Britain.

In theory, it's not hard to imagine a universal grant available to everyone except those who fall, say, in the top 20-30% of the income distribution.  The principle would be that a universal grant could improve the quality of life for everyone in society, except those who are very rich and for whom it would have a negligible impact.  You would have to increase taxes to pay for it, but since 3/4 of adults would benefit it would be a much more acceptable form of redistribution than that which goes from the very top to the very bottom.  Plus, if implemented it would mean savings could be made in other areas - there would be no need for JSA, for example, and other means-tested benefits could also be reviewed.

This all needs to be fully costed, but if affordable what could hold a universal grant back?  It would transform the scale of inequality over night and, given what know about its harmful effects, make Britain a much better place to live.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Welfare Reform 2.0 - where will the Coalition go next?

As the Welfare Reform Bill goes through the Lords (with difficulty), it might seem premature to consider where the Coalition goes next on welfare.  The Bill contains so many deep reforms and has encountered so many problems that many people probably aren't considering what comes next.

But it is highly likely that stronger and deeper reform will come.  The Coalition know they're on to a vote winner with welfare; for many complex reasons, the public have turned on the welfare state and, in particular, the benefits system.  Welfare reform will be a key area - if not the key area - fought over during the run-up to 2015 and the Coalition will be desperate to prove they've been radical.

This means that after the Welfare Reform Bill is finally passed, the Coalition will start to think how they go about a second phase of welfare reform.  After all, the clue is the name; 'welfare reform' suggests a narrative of ongoing, relentless change and this is precisely what the government will be keen to show.

So what might we expect during this second phase of policy, or Welfare Reform 2.0?  This is just guesswork, but we can get some clues from the direction of travel in the US, who are about 15 years ahead (or behind, if you think - like I do - that these are neanderthal reforms) of us on welfare reform.  Here are some predictions (and definitely not recommendations) about what might happen next:
  • Intensified workfare.  Workfare (or work-for-your benefit schemes) are already increasing in use, as stories such as Cait Reilly's demonstrate.  But I think we'll see them rolled out even more over the next few years, to increasing jumpers of JSA claimants and at an earlier stage of the claim.  Why?  For the two reasons most welfare reforms are introduced: to cut expenditure (by discouraging people from claiming benefits) and to shame the unemployed (because the public like this kind of thing).
  • Time-limited benefits.  Time-limiting is already a feature of the welfare state, but this is mostly applied to the contributory components of benefits like ESA and JSA.  I think we might see time-limits introduced to means-tested benefits, such as - for example - a 12 month limit to any claim to JSA.
  • The abolition of contributions-based benefits.  It also wouldn't surprise me to see the abolition of the contributory element to JSA and ESA considered, thereby placing all claimants within a system of means-testing.  The contributory principle is already very weak in the UK relative to other countries and has been chipped away at for decades.  
  • Regionalising benefits.  This idea has been brought up by James Kirkup in the Telegraph and has apparently been referred to by Iain Duncan Smith.  This would involve giving people lower benefits if they live in 'low-cost' parts of the country (presumably old industrial areas in south Wales, Scotland, the north-east and the north-west).
  • Limited child benefits and tax credits. The Coalition are already proposing removing Child Benefit from higher earners, but there has been much debate over the past year about large families and whether it is right for the state to support such families.  It's an increasingly populist view that the state should not and it would undoubtedly please many if benefits were limited to a first or second child.
These are just some of the reforms which the Coalition might be considering: in reality they might not pursue any.  But those who want to defend the welfare state must not be complacent in the thought that the government will stop with the Welfare Reform Bill.  They will seek to go further, and they must be challenged.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Is evidence-based policy a load of crap?

In a book I'm reading for the LSE Politics and Policy Blog - Personalising Public Services - the author Catherine Needham argues that despite the rhetoric about 'evidence-based policy-making', governments in reality construct and implement policies by 'telling stories' to the electorate:

"Formal evaluative data remains important, as might be expected in an era in which ministers demand 'evidence-based policy'.  However, when compelling findings have proved somewhat elusive - appeals to common sense and/or resonant stories are deployed to fill the gap" (p. 55).

I thought about this (for about 5 minutes) and come to the conclusion (perhaps cynically) that most of the time this is what politicians are doing.  They evade and manipulate questions of evidence: they celebrate research that supports their aims and rubbish research that doesn't.  Thus even when evidence is used in the policy-making process it doesn't form central stage: it becomes part of a wider, theatrical production in which a certain political strategy is put on show.

No where is this clearer than with welfare reform, which is not about evidence at all.  Welfare reform is a grand narrative starring the workshy scrounger and the hardworking taxpayer.  It is played out as soap opera, in which the scrounger has the upper hand but where the taxpayer is fighting back.  As with all soap opera the realities of people's lives and experiences are ignored in favour of a simplistic, dramatic and ultimately false dramatisation of the real-life protagonists.

It'd be nice to think that our politicians were old enough and mature enough to do policy differently than 'telling a story'.  But they're not.  Instead we have a political elite obsessed with crafting lies and creating villains.  They don't seem to realise that this fiction is a reality for those they cast in the leading roles.

Trouble ahead for Cameron's Work Programme

Every week at PMQs, in response to the many questions he receives about unemployment and welfare, David Cameron consistently refers to the implementation of the Work Programme - the Coalition's replacement welfare-to-work scheme for the unemployed - as the means by which the country's labour market problems will be solved.

Cameron does this so frequently that last week I asked on Twitter what evidence does he have - if any - that the Work Programme is working and, if there is any evidence, is he sharing it?  After some rooting I found that there is an official evaluation of the Work Programme by CESI, but that we won't see qualitative evidence on its success for another six months, and the statistical analyses won't come until next Winter.

In a time of increasing unemployment and huge welfare changes, it is surely too long to wait until next Winter to get some hard facts about whether the Government's landmark scheme is actually having any effect.  However, some early evidence on its impact comes here, from the National Audit Office, and the signs aren't good for Mr Cameron.

Although praising the Work Programme's central feature of 'payment-by-results', the NAO highlighted the following problems:

  • 14% fewer over-25s would get jobs compared with official estimates.
  • Programme providers run the risk of getting into 'serious financial difficulty' due to the ambitious targets built into the system.
  • The 'harder to help' category (previous IB claimants) are getting less support than expected.
  • The absence of a proper evaluation study now was a cause for concern.
The NAO also said it was a concern that no alternatives to the Work Programme had been considered.  What this represents is David Cameron's quasi-fundamentalist belief - on display every Wednesday at PMQs - that the Work Programme is a panacea for all sorts of problems.  However, as those of us who study welfare-to-work understand, the effect of such schemes is often modest and dependent upon buoyant labour market conditions.  

If Ed Miliband has any sense, he will make the NAO's report the centrepiece of his questioning to the Prime Minister tomorrow.  Coalition ministers consistently celebrate the Work Programme as their central strategy to defeat high unemployment.  Yet the early evidence from the NAO is that it is far from the panacea it is heralded as.  While it's still early days, it's time the Government thought of new approaches to welfare-to-work as the labour market plummets.  It is up to Labour to hold them to account.

Monday, 23 January 2012

The benefits cap is all about morality, with a nonchalant regard for the consequences

Today's debates about the Government's proposed benefit cap have been unusual in the context of welfare reform.  Few numbers have been throw about, there is little talk about policy objectives and whether the cap will boost employment seems at best a side issue.

Instead, the policy is all about morality and, more specifically, about what is fair and what is unfair.  According to the Coalition - and, seemingly, the 75% of the public who agree with them - it is only fair to cap the total amount of benefits an out-of-work household can claim at the same level as median earnings.  If you can take in more through benefits than you can through the average income then, according to this logic, there is something deeply wrong with the welfare state.

Putting aside whether this a morally justifiable position to take, perhaps the most worrying feature of the debate has been the complete sidelining of the likely effects and outcomes of the policy.  The consequences of the cap will be horrific for those affected (just a few are outlined here by the Guardian).  Yet in debate after debate these issues - from child poverty to homelessness - are brushed aside with remarkable nonchalance.  What matters - and only matters, it seems - is justice for the taxpayer.

You can't take morality and justice out of social policy.  But equally, you can't and shouldn't take out evidence.  In debating the benefit cap the Government and its many supporters are doing precisely the latter.  The social and economic fall-outs from the cap have become secondary to notions of justice, and those who are seeking justice care little for the condemned.

Policy-making should always be about combining your politics with the evidence.  People on the left have  often wrestled with this dual concern: as the desire to seek economic justice has often clashed with the need for economic efficiency to fund the goals of social democracy.  Yet politicians can sometimes find themselves in a dangerous comfort zone: when the public are on their side they can resort to political manoeuvres with little regard of the consequences.  This is where the Conservatives find themselves today on welfare; the limits on how far they will go are unknown and, at this point in time, deeply unsettling for those who care about the welfare state.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Three things we learned about Labour's welfare policy from Liam Byrne's Guardian article

Today Liam Byrne – the shadow Work and Pensions secretary – has written an article for the Guardian which, as is usual with these kind of things, attempts to ‘rewrite’ Beveridge for the 21st century (people have been trying to rewrite Beveridge since his report was produced). 

The report has caused the usual storm amongst Labour supporters on Twitter.  Many on the left are criticising Byrne’s ‘hardline’ or ‘reactionary’ stance on welfare, in what they see as pandering to the Coalition.  Those on the right of Labour are supporting Byrne’s defence of a ‘fair deal’ on welfare for ‘hardworking taxpayers’.  Others are just a little nonplussed and see nothing new or fresh in Byrne’s article.

In my view though, there are important things to be taken from what Byrne says.  As is the case with most political strategies, Labour is trying to do two things with its welfare policy.  First, show common ground with its opponents (in order to look moderate).  Second, let voters know what it would do differently (in order to be worth voting for).  In this context, it’s possible to take three messages from Byrne’s article in terms of what Labour might offer the electorate on welfare in 2015.

First, Labour is unequivocally in favour of welfare conditionality.  This might not come as a surprise to most of us, but conditional benefits were once (and probably still are for some) a controversial policy area for many on the left.  Today, I think you’d be hard pushed to find any Labour politician come out in favour of an unconditional, social rights approach to welfare as associated with T.H. Marshall.  Why is this the case?  The answer is probably complex, but we know via important research from the British Social Attitudes series that the public are very much in favour of welfare conditionality; to advocate otherwise would be political suicide.  On conditionality then, Labour is at one with the Government.

However, Labour is also keen to differentiate itself from the Coalition on welfare, and this necessity leads to messages two and three.  Firstly then, Labour would do more in power to create jobs.  Perhaps for a mix of ideological and economic constraints, the Coalition is not keen on government action to create jobs; where it is sort of attempting this, it is through incentives for the private sector rather than direct state job creation.  Labour has less of a problem in using the levers of government in this way, and so Byrne argues for a ‘responsible government taking determined action to create work’.  It is likely therefore that Labour will advocate reinstating something similar to its Future Jobs Fund, scrapped by the Coalition upon coming to power.

The second difference on welfare between the Coalition and Labour is, potentially, much more radical, and is something Byrne alludes to quite strongly in his article.  This is the strengthening of the contributory principle in the welfare state or, as Byrne describes it, a ‘something for something’ approach.  Beveridge was a strong advocate for social insurance yet his visions for a contributory welfare state were only weakly implemented and have, over successive decades, been consistently diluted by both Labour and Conservative governments.  Byrne suggests that Labour – if elected – would give people who had contributed to the system much more back in return.  He is not too specific (he ignores, for example, whether this would apply to benefits such as JSA or the State Pension) but this would necessitate a radical shake-up of existing welfare relations and is clearly not in the plans of the Coalition government.

So although Labour supports the Government on its tough approach to welfare conditionality, the party is attempting to draw two dividing lines: on the scale of support the state offers to out-of-work claimants and on how government rewards people through the welfare state.  This is a start for Labour after struggling to compete with the Coalition on welfare and there is still much work to be done on specific policy details.  But it could – just could – be the beginning of a serious and potentially radical renewal of Labour’s often troubled recent relationship with the welfare state.