Tuesday, 7 May 2013

So what do UKIP have to say about welfare?

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

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

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

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

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

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