Reports like this are ten-a-penny these days, as the British right-wing are sure they're on to a winner in benefit bashing. The Coalition's punitive stance on social security thus poses problems for the Left. First, the policy agenda is largely a continuation of New Labour's stance (though I would argue Labour offered a more holistic agenda). If Ed Miliband changes track on welfare, he risks looking extremely opportunistic. Second, it is an immeasurably popular agenda with the public. Defending 'scroungers' doesn't seem like a good idea; Labour understands that if they are seen to be on the side of benefit claimants, they risk looking like the 'party of the poor' once again.
Yet, Labour should oppose the Coalition on welfare reform. However easy it might be to accept welfare as an area of reform Labour is comfortable with, both the rhetoric and the policy are fundamentally flawed, for three reasons:
1. Workfare doesn't work. One policy recommendation from Policy Exchange is that benefit claimants should be forced to undertake unpaid work while claiming benefit. However, since mandatory work became all the rage in neo-liberal America, countless evaluations and academic studies have found it to be wholly ineffective.
This is summarised by no other than the DWP in a 2008 report. In the report, the authors argue that "there is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work" and that "workfare is least effective for individuals with multiple barriers to work". Given that the Coalition is transferring hundreds of thousands of people from Incapacity Benefit to JSA, most of whom we can hypothesise have 'multiple barriers to work', is workfare really the best policy?
2. Welfare reform ignores the causes of unemployment. In the Policy Exchange report, they implicitly argue that unemployment is caused by the behaviour of benefit claimants: they don't spend long enough looking for work and are happy to reject work in favour of benefits. For an organisation which purportedly prides itself on economic nous, behavioural explanations of unemployment are woefully superficial and cavalier.
Most serious analysts would attribute unemployment to structural, socio-economic factors: lack of adequate/suitable jobs, poor skills, local and geographical characteristics, ill health. We didn't have full employment in post-war Britain because people behaved in a more motivated way. As such, simply getting people to spend more time looking for work is profoundly unlikely to have much of an effect. You can look all day for the gold at the end of the rainbow, it doesn't mean you'll find it.
3. Punitive policies and rhetoric corrode social solidarity. In an article I wrote for the blog Inequalities, I showed how over a decade of welfare reform had corroded support and sympathy for the unemployed. Believe it or not, before 1997 most people in the UK thought benefits for the unemployed were too low and needed to be higher. They also believed that unemployment was caused by injustice. Now, big majorities think benefits are too high and those who claim them do so out of laziness and lack of willpower. There is a deep, moral issue here for Labour: most of us want to live in a society where people stand side-by-side with those more disadvantaged than them, not look down and spit.
These are the reasons why Labour most oppose the Coalition on welfare reform. Doing this involves arguing that new policies won't work, misunderstand the problem and breed a deeply harmful social mistrust. Alternatively, we need policies which are based on scientific evidence about the causes of unemployment and which are shaped to support, not punish, vulnerable people. This is not about handing out benefits as of right and leaving it at that, but about providing financial, emotional and practical support, as partners in an equal relationship of mutuality and reciprocity.