Did Labour convince us to “keep faith in the system”?

July 8, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 5 Comments

Most of you will have now seen Sunny’s interview with Ed Miliband, in which he declared himself ‘the candidate of change’ and then somewhat contentiously argued that New Labour wasn’t too harsh in how it handled the benefits system. Responding to heckles from the audience, Sunny suggests Miliband’s critics have missed the point:

Sure, New Labour did use a lot of negative language, but it’s naive to assume people won’t talk about “benefits cheats” just because the Labour government didn’t. The Daily Mail cannot be wished away. And so I’m assuming New Labour simply made the calculation that sounding harsh on benefit cheats in public would convince the public something was being done about them – and keep faith in the system. Because once that faith goes, then the system goes.

In many respects, Sunny is absolutely correct. We shouldn’t have any trouble believing that New Labour’s punitive approach to the long term unemployed – from threatening them with homelessness and forcing them into workfare to giving them breathalisers and lie detectors – was anything less than pure political opportunism, designed to win a few favourable headlines and deflect the charge that they’re soft on ‘scroungers’. Some of us having been saying this for years, and the fact that most of these proposals never made it past the pages of the tabloids is a testament to how ineffably unserious they were.

But if we’re to accept that such tactics were born more out of calculation than conviction (which is hardly the most most stirring defence, is it?), we should then consider whether those tactics worked. So did New Labour’s frequent admonishments of the long-term unemployed succeed in convincing the public to, as Sunny puts it, “keep faith in the system”?

Not so much. Over a period which saw remarkably consistent growth and increased national prosperity, both the British Social Attitudes survey and the Rowntree Foundation found a hardening in the British public’s attitudes to unemployment, poverty & welfare. In 1996, the BSA survey found that 78% of respondants agreed that the government had a responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed. By 2006, that number had fallen to 55%. At best, Labour failed to arrest an inexorable decline in the public’s faith in the benefits system; at worst, its calculations actively fed on this lack of faith to the point where the public has become far more receptive to the idea of Tory cuts.

This doesn’t mean that we need to ignore those good things Labour has done, nor dredge up its misdeeds at every opportunity; there will be a new leadership team before too long, and they don’t bear responsibility for every mistake made in 13 long years. But when the past approach seemed to win very little respite from the crowd that cries ‘Shameless!‘ at the first sight of a Job Centre – and lost them a huge amount of goodwill in the process – perhaps it’s time for people like Miliband to stop reaching for face-saving justifications.

Instead of trying to score points off the long-term unemployed, these ex-ministers must now talk about how they would assist & empower them. And instead of devising tabloid-pleasing scams, they should explain how they would prevent the millions who’re being left behind from being added to the human scrapheap.


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  1. LABOUR of the RED flag does not exist
    we have a party somewhere between con and lib
    the nation does not to want a LABOUR party of old
    all think themselves middle class …. at worst working class
    which is a misnomer ………….as the song says let it be let it be

  2. A new generation …a new kind of people
    empty headed…. different …society is different
    the world as changed ….maybe not for the better
    then again ………maybe it has …….coalition
    is the way forward … consensus …..not revolution
    professional MPs ….NOT CONVICTION MPs
    people in my opinion are empty of conviction ME ME ME
    Milton Friedman is right… greed is everything …THE MODERN HUMAN IS SAD


  4. ED. DAVID . the MILIBANDS are of the discredited NEW LABOUR
    small Tory’s…. a new way that BLAIR thought was the way forward
    LABOUR IS ..DEAD think of another name
    DEMOCRATS maybe…………same as the Americans

  5. ‘This doesn’t mean that we need to ignore those good things Labour has done, nor dredge up its misdeeds at every opportunity’

    But without such dredging, what would you blog about? Did I miss the series on the good things? Is the Yellow Bird bashing about to commence? ;op

    Well it is ‘bleeding’ rather than ‘cold, cold’ heart (Elton John, of course).

    I think it’s the ‘at best’ scenario, really. This being the case, how do you suggest that Labour might have successfully done better?

    As usual, it’s not as though I disagree, but I see different causality behind the changing attitudes, involving much broader phenomena.

    The pattern of opinion is replicated, to varying degrees, across other Western countries in the data.
    Surveys such as this often have an oppositional cast; Labour in power raised taxes and redistributed – and was also simply the incumbent – hence opposition grew.
    Declining social mobility and immigration increased the othering of the poor, diminishing solidarity and enhancing residualism.
    This undermined any generosity that is often correlated with rising affluence.
    It also led to C2 and like groups feeling – in a very hostile media environment and (in some senses) labour market – that not only were the poor ‘others’ but they were recognisable defectors, proximate others, rather than other violators of the social contract, impossibly removed from such a visceral response, and feared as the ‘golden geese’ cf ‘scroungers’
    Labour reflected this whilst also reflecting its older traditions of empowerment.
    Empowerment is in tension with punitive measures – not in contradiction. There’s always been a strong strain in Labour towards expensive jobs & education programmes over welfare. This can be – and was – manipulated out of fear of the press and personal ambition.

    Tony Judt, in the NYRB or LRB a while back I think, offered a stirring assault on the indignities of means-testing, yet this was couched in a call for an essentially conservative defence of the welfare state for the foreseeable. There is possible tension here.

    One sees echoes of the current criticisms of President Obama and historians attacks on LBJ’s rationale for escalating involvement in Vietnam. For the former, we are told that the opponents will always oppose and thus must be fought with bold defences of liberalism; the latter involves citing public opposition to escalation prior to the decision. These are both correct. However, both liberal approaches would have left openings for opponents to attack. Sometimes, of course, conviction must replace calculation in such matters – and sometimes it’s just a matter of recalculating with a different time horizon.

    What I mean is simply this: it seems to me that New Labour’s welfare approach probably didn’t do much to help or harm attitudes towards various egalitarian positions, but their absence may have created the opportunities for harm, especially considering all the good that was done.

    Ultimately, I tend to come down on this one with the ‘if in doubt, do what’s right’ position, but I do think there’s considerable room for doubt on the right tactics and strategy here. By looking at the comparative data and secular trends it certainly helps confirm the possibility of good faith on the part of those who adopted repellent approaches. Some days I’m not inclined to be so generous (here’s looking at you, Headless Attack Dog).

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