Labour recently announced the intention of ending in-work poverty within the bounds of the next parliament once in government. Putting to one side this slightly woolly phrasing – reminiscent of the current administration’s resolution to ‘complete decarbonisation (hopefully before the last polar bear burns to death)’ – this is a welcome intervention from a leadership that has frankly been far too reticent on the matter of benefits.
For all the economic radicalism that permeates much of Labour’s programme for government, from nationalising key planks of industry to the abolition of tuition fees, we have heard relatively little about how the party intends to tackle the chronic levels of poverty in the United Kingdom. There’s been a failure to take the opportunity to re-examine and reframe the bounds of the discussion surrounding the welfare state, and once more make it the jewel in the crown of a new country. Of course, the fact that the Corbyn mythos was built around his decision during the 2015 leadership election to vote against the second reading of the Tory Welfare bill – a moment that came to define Corbyn’s ‘man of principle’ appeal – makes the failure of Labour to argue for more robust reform all the more damning.
It goes beyond rhetoric, too. The ability to alter benefits policy is arguably the most immediately consequential of all the levers available to pull in Whitehall. While the appetite for a departure from the status quo manifests itself in popular support for the Labour Party and its re-invigorated programme, we’d do well to bring the argument back onto Labour grounds, dispelling current dogma and enshrining new standards to be upheld.
Labour, naturally, are the party of the welfare state. Our last stretch in government, for all the failings of New Labour, proved this once again. This is part of the reason why arguments frequently made in Corbynsceptic circles centre around the welfare state – you’ll likely already be aware of this oft-cited graph displaying New Labour’s impressive record of redistribution, even if it is often brought up by people who instinctively bought into a form of ‘austerity realism’ in the wake of the financial crisis. As a direct beneficiary of Gordon Brown’s working tax credits and a product of New Labour’s revamped welfare state, I’ll be the first in line to tell people how important those policies were and are – but for today’s Labour Party they should only constitute the baseline of what we look for in a welfare state.
Tax credits undoubtedly staved off homelessness and hunger for many. They also probably got me into university. But even then, being a beneficiary of the most redistributive government in the history of the United Kingdom was still a chronically miserable experience. The bevy of checks and balances (read: sanctions) made the process unnecessarily byzantine during an emotionally fraught time (read: divorce). The frankly meagre amount of money given to recipients guaranteed existence, certainly, but it was a miserable existence, devoid of what we might call ‘life’. Tax credits, such as they were, barely kept the lights on, and did nothing to service the crippling debt we were struggling under at the time. We were always short of this or that, never able to plan further ahead than the tip of our noses and perennially one household fault away from going under.
And this has been the case throughout the history of the welfare state, with payments doled out by grudging institutions in meagre quantities not conducive to substantial levels of general wellness. It’s no great secret that the sanctions and checks introduced under the last Labour government to help shield against right-wing press attacks on ‘benefit cheats’ have now become the basis on which the current draconian PIP and other associated assessments have been constructed. All this media bile exists despite the fact that ‘benefit fraud’ is largely statistically insignificant as an actual observable phenomenon, much less as a serious burden on the public coffers. For every family raised out of destitution by tax credits, another has been condemned due to the last Labour government’s decision to cede the argument to the right. If we are to begin to forge something new, we must grapple with this bittersweet legacy.
And in this endeavour, we must do more than simply dissect the punitive elements of New Labour’s benefits system. We need to step back and consider how we are to approach the very concept of benefits and welfare. Fundamentally, the bedrock of the left-wing case on welfare must be that a welfare state should provide people with the means to have a life, not just to live. And that brings us to UBI.
Proponents of a Universal Basic Income take a lot of – frequently justified – flak for what is at best an incomplete vision for a reformed welfare state and at worst an incoherent and actively damaging policy (given its extremely high costs and tensions with the trade union settlement). However, the one thing about which some of its noted proponents (Rutger Bregman for one) are absolutely right is the notion that, collectively, our parameters of what benefit payments should be expected to cover have historically been far too miserly. If social security as an institution is to exist, it fundamentally should allow for more than mere subsistence, it should allow for the very humble privilege of being able to have a nice time.
The sixth largest economy in the world shouldn’t be organised in a manner that prices the poorest out of leisure time. People shouldn’t have to work for days and days on end to merely provide the basic necessities required for life – a Labour commitment to a right to leisure time and the requisite means to realise it would represent a titanic shift in the bounds of arguments concerning the welfare state. It could even be a hammer blow to the neoliberal dogma that has gripped much of the public consciousness too, forcing us to collectively ask the question – what on earth are we even working ourselves to the bone for?
Alongside this, Labour should dedicate itself to a wider cultural deconstruction of the image of benefits as we know them. The myth of the benefit scrounger should be killed off for once and all, and a real effort should be put into changing public attitudes, with an emphasis placed on the fact that there is no shame in requiring assistance from the state.. (As a brief aside, I had to consider whether or not this very brief account of my time on benefits should be anonymised, given how ashamed some family members feel about the matter.) The DWP, in essence, should be unrecognisable once Labour gets its hands on it. The very notion of sanctions should be purged root and stem from government, and a broader spectrum of people should be receiving more generous payments.
Under Jeremy Corbyn the Labour party has re-crossed several enormous ideological rubicons, whether in terms of a commitment to free education or to the nationalisation of rail. These are important and necessary objectives that have struck a welcome chord with the general public. But – and there is a but here – the political energy centred on these aims could and should be spent with equal fervour on issues pertaining to the explicit redistribution of wealth. This isn’t to say that the current crop of policies wouldn’t constitute a consequential improvement to the lives of people on benefits. Scrapping PIP assessments and the bedroom tax are a great start – but they should not be seen as more than a start.
In truth, we can and should pledge to nationalise key planks of industry and pursue wealth redistribution concurrently: but the focus of our arguments and our first priorities must be centred around the redistribution of wealth into the hands of the many as soon as possible. When dealing with a crisis, you address the most immediately pressing issues first.
The Labour Party is offering many good policies addressing a range of issues facing today’s United Kingdom. But nothing is as important as the fundamental necessity of providing the most vulnerable people in society with a basic level of human dignity. With the government’s political bandwidth set to continue to be dominated by Brexit over the coming months, Labour should take the opportunity to fill the void where the heart of the DWP should be, and reframe the welfare debate. This is a matter of unparalleled urgency, and we should be doing better.