Who’s winning the war on welfare?December 8, 2008 at 11:59 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, New Labour, Working Class Britain | 4 Comments
Tags: Conservatives, James Purnell, Labour, Welfare Reform
There has never been a better – or a worse – time to reform the welfare system. Aided by a recession which has made public spending the top political issue, and the deep anger caused by the tragedies of Baby P and Shannon Matthews, the public have become far more receptive to the idea of a tougher, sanction-based system than they were in the halcyon days of summer. Short of a Labour rebellion on the scale of the 10p tax fiasco, our increasing antipathy towards the terminally jobless will probably see Purnell’s pet project sail through the Commons. And yet, as some are painfully aware, in days when the jobless figures keep rising, it’s hard to find jobs for the short-term unemployed, let alone those who have never worked in their lives.
The problem with trying to write about welfare reform is so much of the rhetoric tends to merge economic issues (the amount of money the state spends on the poorest in society) with social problems (the crime, poor education, family breakdown and general dysfunction which can be found in impoverished communities).The two are heavily linked, of course, but the mistake politicians often make is assuming that by producing policies to tackle the former, the latter will somehow fix itself.
The chief perpetrators of this mistake are the Labour government. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation points out, the primary weapon in Labour’s war on poverty has been expanding and incentivising employment, and whilst this worked fine during our Days of Plenty, it was unlikely to stand the test of time; we were always going to endure a recession at some point, and some of those lifted out of poverty by employment will inevitably fall back into poverty when they lose their job.
At the same time, whilst Labour had succeeded in extending prosperity to some, it’s been unable to tackle the underlying social problems which prevented the poor from finding work even during the boom years. We still have crime and violence, drug addiction, teen pregnancy and kids being raised by parents with barely a GCSE to their name, and there’s nothing in Purnell’s proposals which suggests that will change.
The Conservatives’ proposals are slightly more complicated to assess. Predictably enough, in the Mail on Sunday, David Cameron daubs a bleak, Lowryesque picture of working class Britain and indulges in the kind of crude moralising of someone who’s just read about poverty in the Daily Telegraph. But when you look beyond the ‘Purnell on steroids’ part of the Tories’ plans, there’s an attention to social problems which sets them apart from Labour.
Yes, Cameron insists, we need to badger, cajole and ‘condition’ the poor into taking whatever work our newly-minted job centres will give them, but we also need tax breaks for married couples and greater freedom for schools. Furthermore, The Observer reports that they’d create a ‘new breed of welfare-to-work’ advisers, who, in addition to finding people jobs, would also assess their home lives and the conditions their children live in:
They could examine children’s school performance or problem behaviour, check whether the parents encouraged homework and school attendance, and intervene if necessary to stop children risking future unemployment.
I don’t want anyone to mistake me for a fan of these ideas. Even if marriage tax incentives really are designed to help the poor and aren’t just the Middle England-pleasing giveaway I assume them to be, it’s still a waste of money which could be put to good use elsewhere. And as for the proposed ‘home visits’ from welfare-to-work advisors, what that essentially amounts to is a quasi-criminalisation of unemployment and one of the most astonishing examples of right-wing authoritarianism I’ve seen in a long time.
Nonetheless, there is at least an acceptance on the Tories’ part that adequately reforming the welfare system will also require a commitment to tackling some of the causes and consequences of lifelong unemployment, that those problems have formed over generations and will take just as long to resolve. Their diagnosis of the problem is reasonably good, but their idea of the cure is emphatically not.
The war on welfare is still in its infancy, and I don’t think we can make any definitive conclusions from these opening skirmishes. However, now that the shortcomings of Labour’s attempts at tackling poverty are slowly being revealed, it’s time to look again at the causes of long-term unemployment and look to strategies which go beyond simply outsourcing job seekers to private contractors, crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. In their own, maddening, meddling way, the Tories have at least grasped that fact. Now it’s time for Labour to start catching up.
Image by Flickr user Neil101 (no relation!) (Creative Commons)