Today Liam Byrne – the shadow Work and Pensions secretary – has written an article for the Guardian which, as is usual with these kind of things, attempts to ‘rewrite’ Beveridge for the 21st century (people have been trying to rewrite Beveridge since his report was produced).
The report has caused the usual storm amongst Labour supporters on Twitter. Many on the left are criticising Byrne’s ‘hardline’ or ‘reactionary’ stance on welfare, in what they see as pandering to the Coalition. Those on the right of Labour are supporting Byrne’s defence of a ‘fair deal’ on welfare for ‘hardworking taxpayers’. Others are just a little nonplussed and see nothing new or fresh in Byrne’s article.
In my view though, there are important things to be taken from what Byrne says. As is the case with most political strategies, Labour is trying to do two things with its welfare policy. First, show common ground with its opponents (in order to look moderate). Second, let voters know what it would do differently (in order to be worth voting for). In this context, it’s possible to take three messages from Byrne’s article in terms of what Labour might offer the electorate on welfare in 2015.
First, Labour is unequivocally in favour of welfare conditionality. This might not come as a surprise to most of us, but conditional benefits were once (and probably still are for some) a controversial policy area for many on the left. Today, I think you’d be hard pushed to find any Labour politician come out in favour of an unconditional, social rights approach to welfare as associated with T.H. Marshall. Why is this the case? The answer is probably complex, but we know via important research from the British Social Attitudes series that the public are very much in favour of welfare conditionality; to advocate otherwise would be political suicide. On conditionality then, Labour is at one with the Government.
However, Labour is also keen to differentiate itself from the Coalition on welfare, and this necessity leads to messages two and three. Firstly then, Labour would do more in power to create jobs. Perhaps for a mix of ideological and economic constraints, the Coalition is not keen on government action to create jobs; where it is sort of attempting this, it is through incentives for the private sector rather than direct state job creation. Labour has less of a problem in using the levers of government in this way, and so Byrne argues for a ‘responsible government taking determined action to create work’. It is likely therefore that Labour will advocate reinstating something similar to its Future Jobs Fund, scrapped by the Coalition upon coming to power.
The second difference on welfare between the Coalition and Labour is, potentially, much more radical, and is something Byrne alludes to quite strongly in his article. This is the strengthening of the contributory principle in the welfare state or, as Byrne describes it, a ‘something for something’ approach. Beveridge was a strong advocate for social insurance yet his visions for a contributory welfare state were only weakly implemented and have, over successive decades, been consistently diluted by both Labour and Conservative governments. Byrne suggests that Labour – if elected – would give people who had contributed to the system much more back in return. He is not too specific (he ignores, for example, whether this would apply to benefits such as JSA or the State Pension) but this would necessitate a radical shake-up of existing welfare relations and is clearly not in the plans of the Coalition government.
So although Labour supports the Government on its tough approach to welfare conditionality, the party is attempting to draw two dividing lines: on the scale of support the state offers to out-of-work claimants and on how government rewards people through the welfare state. This is a start for Labour after struggling to compete with the Coalition on welfare and there is still much work to be done on specific policy details. But it could – just could – be the beginning of a serious and potentially radical renewal of Labour’s often troubled recent relationship with the welfare state.