Monday, 13 April 2015

Welfare manifesto watch: Labour

During this week, when most of the major UK parties are releasing their general election manifestos, I'll be taking a look at what each party is offering on welfare.  Despite being usurped by immigration and the health service during the past year, for the best part of the Coalition's time in government social security has been a major policy issue.  For their part, the Conservatives believed they were on the public's side when it came to tough reforms.  Meanwhile Labour has spent much of its time in opposition struggling to think about its response to the Coalition's welfare reforms.

Understandably then, Labour has not made social security a major theme of its pitch to govern.  It's not a platform the party believes it can win on, deducing that its reputation on welfare is so toxic that it will sacrifice less political capital through muffled whispering compared to any serious attempt to build a new welfare policy.

Continuity then, in the sense of further cuts or - at best - maintenance of existing support, is the first major theme of Labour's welfare proposals.  There are some policies here I suspect we'll see from either or both of the two governing parties.  These include:
  • Capping Child Benefit for two years
  • Means-testing the winter fuel payment
  • 'Targeting' support at 18-21 year-olds and making it dependent on training.
  • Supporting the household benefit cap and, in a measure that will worry the Left of the party, consulting on the regionalisation of the cap.
  • 'Devolving' the Work Programme to a more 'local level'. 
  • No changes to tax credits, TV licences or bus passes.

These policies will mostly fail to please Labour supporters and activists.  But I think there are two further, albeit smaller, themes in Labour's welfare plans.  The first is stronger intervention in the labour market.  This fits comfortably with Miliband's broader approach of 'changing capitalism'.  The Coalition scrapped the similarly interventionist Future Jobs Fund: not out of the view it didn't work (it did) but because it contradicted their broader labour market strategy of private sector job creation.  

Instead, Labour is advocating a job guarantee for all long-term unemployed people: confirmation of a now familiar Labour policy crafted in opposition.  The guarantee will apply to all young people unemployed for a year and everyone else unemployed for two years.  It will be criticised by the Left for being 'compulsory' in the sense benefits will stop for those who refuse.  But it is still a bold measure: effectively abolishing very long-term unemployment.  

The third and final theme is contribution.  A more contributory welfare system is something Labour have flirted with for several years now, largely because of the argument that declining support for welfare has something to do with ever-increased means-testing: nothing for something.  In its manifesto, Labour pledges a higher-rate of JSA for those with sufficient contributions records.  We'll see how far Labour goes with this (we're unlikely to see European-style benefits with very high replacement rates) but it remains a potentially important shift in direction.  Especially given the Conservatives are suggesting they will further means-test JSA.

Finally, there is one glaring omission from Labour's manifesto: sanctioning.  In the aftermath of Cameron's death-by-Paxman last month, Labour has made a big issue of food banks and the need to reduce dependence on them.  One key part of the strategy for doing so, as argued for by Reeves in March, is to reform the present sanctioning regime.  But there is not one mention of this in the Labour manifesto.  Why has it been excluded from the manifesto?  Because the policy has been scrapped or because it was deemed politically unwise to draw attention to it?  This seems to me a question Labour needs to answer.