On James Purnell’s ‘values’September 23, 2008 at 1:30 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | Leave a comment
Over at Next Left, which is blogging prodigiously from the Labour conference this week, there’s an excellent takedown of James Purnell’s bizarre insistence that his welfare reform holds true to Labour’s values, despite the fact he’ll need the Tories’ support to get it through Parliament:
Central to Labour’s welfare reform is the idea of ‘conditionality’: making benefits conditional on efforts to find a job or make oneself more employable. Many argue that this is inherently ‘unLabour’. They are wrong. Purnell is right to stress the emphasis which early Labour thinkers placed on welfare as a support to enable people to work for a living, not as a replacement for work. The Labour ethic was that everyone ought to ‘do their bit’ for the community rather than living off the labour of others.
But Purnell’s history is too selective. Early Labour thinkers, such as R.H. Tawney, certainly criticised the separation of income from work. But the main target of their criticism was not the welfare state. It was capitalism – or, at least, specific forms of private property. Tawney’s great book, The Acquisitive Society, is a critique of landlords who enjoy big gains in land values without lifting a finger, those able to live off inherited wealth, and so on. It is not an essay about the unemployed poor.
What Tawney saw was the inconsistency and unfairness of applying the work principle to the asset poor and not to the asset rich.