Some arguments about the UK government's welfare reform programme - Labour are as deeply committed to these aims as the Tories
- Category: Analysis
- Published on Tuesday, 21 October 2014
- Written by Richard Atkinson
- Some arguments about the UK government's welfare reform programme
- 1. They are not trying (very hard) to reduce welfare expenditure
- 2. They do not want, at all, to reduce welfare dependency
- 3. They are not interested in getting people into work...
- 4. ... because they don't know what to do with people when they are working
- 5. They are not, exactly, aiming to abolish the welfare state
- 6. … not least because the present welfare state is their own, neoliberal, creation
- 7. They are converting the DWP into a punitive arm of the state
- 8. They are looking to create a low waged, unskilled, precarious workforce
- 9. They are enforcing a patriarchal discipline on women and families by means testing
- 10. They are winning ...
- 11. ... and Universal Credit will seal their victory for a generation
- 12. They have a problem with pensioners, which they have yet to sort out
- 13. Labour are as deeply committed to these aims as the Tories
- 14. Why it’s Welfare, not Social Security
- 15. Why it’s back to 1601 not 1834
- 16. No-one asked for welfare
- 17. Against welfare: for class independence
- ADDENDUM - On proposals for an Unconditional Basic Income.
- All Pages
13. Labour are as deeply committed to these aims as the Tories
The opening words of the National Assistance Act 1948 were an unusually forthright statement of intent: “The existing poor law shall cease to have effect”. In many ways this was a high point, in the UK, for the long wave of working class resistance which shaped the first three quarters of the twentieth century. It was a real, not a symbolic victory: there were no more workhouses, there was no household means test. A centuries old nightmare was lifted. This was actually a cross-party achievement. The Tory R A Butler spoke powerfully, if pompously, in favour of ‘social certainty’, a phrase he preferred to ‘social security’. The Liberal Beveridge made most of the proposals, which were significantly watered down by the Attlee government (benefit rates for instance were set at a level - and have remained there - 30% below Beveridge’s recommendations). But it remained the core element, the collectively remembered centre, of Labourism the ideology and to a lesser extent of the Labour Party.
But Labour are a party committed to governing under capitalism, meaning that they must always, ultimately, be alert first to the needs of capital. Labour could not have instituted the system of neoliberal austerity in as sweeping or decisive a way as did the Coalition in 2010, which is why they were destined to lose that election - and when the electorate showed signs of confusion about the historic necessity of austerity our ruling class had Gus Macdonald in place to finesse the right outcome.
Yet if Labour could not have initiated austerity, they are now well placed to continue it after 2015, on-message, online and eager to prove just how tough they can be. They have made precisely two commitments in advance - to abolish the bedroom tax (in fiscal terms a minor element in the Coalition’s assault significant mainly as a step towards equalising rent and other conditions between social and private housing provision and the eventual subsumption of the former under the latter; a process which can be advanced by other means) and to replace the Work Programme with a scheme to provide 25 hours a week at minimum wage for long term unemployed people (with ample supervisory contract opportunities for the welfare to work industry).
Of the remaining Coalition welfare cuts, £23 billion a year of them, Labour are committed to restoring none at all. Their recent commitment to review the work capability assessment is almost perfectly free of content since it says nothing about altering the detailed conditions of that assessment. Of the central coalition strategy - to extend the reach of welfare further into the underemployed and casualised working class, and to deepen means testing and conditionality through Universal Credit - Labour have uttered no criticism (They have criticised the implementation of Universal Credit but not its aims; they have made occasional noises about the growth of in-work benefits but no systematic critique). In this they are following well established tradition. Welfare policy since 1948 has been a matter of bipartisan agreement most of the time, rhetorical flourishes aside.
The one theme Labour have consistently if quietly drawn out is the continuing existence of the universal pensioner benefits - free bus passes, TV licences, prescriptions and ultimately State Retirement Pension itself. These they plan to means test, using fake leftist arguments - why should we be subsidising wealthy pensioners when everyone else in suffering? - where necessary. That is the significance of Labour’s most pointed policy difference with the Tories about post 2015 welfare - Labour’s version of the overall welfare expenditure cap will include the State Pension; the Tory’s version will not. It will be Labour’s role, should they win in 2015, to finish off the final surviving, non-means-tested, pensioner, elements of a once universal welfare state - and they will use the authority and memory of 1948 to perform this task for capital.