Re-framing the welfare debate
Winning the Argument
By Darrell Goodliffe, previously published here
An awful lot of the welfare debate gets lost in the irrational discourse promoted by the media and politicians alike. The left is falsely portrayed as favouring large and lavish welfare spending while the right pretends it is all about cutting the welfare bill when in fact its economic policies drive it through the roof. As a left-winger, a socialist, I do not want to see a large welfare bill; a large welfare bill means many people are out of work, working for poverty pay, paying extortionate rent for sub-standard housing, etc, etc, all things that I am actually against and I want to see eradicated. I want to cut the welfare bill because I want to see jobs for the people that can take them, people being paid a decent, living wage and everybody having a basic entitlement to being housed in liveable conditions. The fact that the state is forced to step-in on so many occasions is not, for me, a comment on peoples inherent fecklessness or a ‘dependency culture’ but in actual fact a sad commentary on the failings of capitalism as a social system.
Welfare is going to be a big issue in the next Parliament due to George Osborne’s much-touted plan to cut £10 billion more from the welfare budget. No doubt this is as much politically as fiscally motivated because it is one area where the general thrust of government policy is actually quite popular. Polls have been published which showed opposition to welfare cuts for the disabled but the attitude towards those who are unemployed is actually dramatically hardening. The pronounced opposition to cuts for the disabled and the governments harrying of those on disability benefits in general is pretty unsurprising, especially as these surveys were conducted in close proximity to the successful Paralympic Games. What we are actually seeing is a growing division in the public hive-mind between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor – with something similar happening with their view of the rich incidentally – support for those viewed as ‘deserving’ remains strong but woe betide the undeserving.
So, how does the left respond? Firstly, it has to make the point that the welfare system does not exist to make a moral judgement as such. Its purpose is to ensure that no citizen falls below a certain, bare minimum standard of living.
It should perhaps be noted however, that the current construction of the welfare state does lend itself to implying a moral judgement is there to be made, rather than being geared towards that general goal, its stated purpose is actually to intervene only in narrow, rather tightly-defined circumstances, ie, those of dire need. Obviously, then whether you support it can become a matter of how dire you think somebodies need is and indeed if you think they are doing everything they possibly can to steer themselves out of that position. Secondly, it needs to be making the point I made at the very top, that a high welfare bill is not actually what we want at all, I would much rather have a sustainable economy that provides enough well-paid jobs to go round than a billions of pounds welfare bill. Thirdly, and finally, it needs to develop policies that address the real causes of high welfare spending and indeed ‘welfare dependency’ at root-cause.
A big cause of a dependency is out of control rents so we need to look at rent controls. The big plus is a policy of rent control, for example, does not just benefit those right at the bottom but those in work as well, those at the bottom, middle and even middle-top, so it will have broad appeal and by addressing a real social issue for many householders avoids the charge of only about helping the public, mistakenly, view as ‘scroungers’. It also makes the position of benefit claimants relative to those who aren’t claiming and thus will undercut the right’s infamous ‘divide and rule’ stratagem by giving people a focus on a problem they have in common.
Welfare is one of the issues that the left has to recognise it is losing the argument on and the only way to win it back again is to take the best of our values and frame them in a way which intersects with the public mood, not by adapting to it, but listening to it and seeking to change it. If we don’t do this then the outcome is simple, the right will win the day, and our most neediest citizens will suffer for our inability to both adapt and be principled (something that is possible in politics) all at the same time.