Once again, the opinions of Labour’s DWP spokesman Liam Byrne are causing controversy – this time a short piece in the Observer that starts off surprisingly well with quite a cogent critique of the failings of Coalition welfare policy, before shooting himself spectacularly in the foot by proposing a raft of solutions demonstrating his acceptance of the Coalition’s assumptions. Readers of course can make up their own minds as to which they believe.
The problem with Byrne is that he is completely hung up on the idea of sanctions – a belief that people need to be threatened to give up the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. The Welfare State after Beveridge represented a fundamental shift – from the idea that poverty, unemployment and idleness were caused by individual failings to the idea that they represented a systemic failing (going hand-in-hand with the adoption of the Keynsian economic rationality in which an interventionist state could prevent, to coin a phrase, boom and bust). The Coalition’s assault on welfare is based on a rhetoric that returns to the idea of individual responsibility; it is the message that underpins the vile rhetoric of Osborne, Cameron and their media cheerleaders in their claim that the appalling acts of Mick Philpott are the product of welfare “dependency” (notwithstanding the fact that the case judge’s withering and powerful assessment did not mention benefits once, but focussed on issues of domestic abuse that the political establishment finds far less congenial to its prejudices).
Byrne’s Observer piece starts by discussing systemic failure, but by the time he reaches his proposed solution he is back on individual failings – and where he talks about institutional changes, like a new 10p tax rate and “supporting good employers” (whatever that means) he’s as vague and woolly as his talk of personal sanctions is precise. And in doing so he is happy to accept, rather than challenge, the myths of welfare as against the realities (nicely summed up by Ricky Tomlinson here).
And his talk of the “old principle of contribution” is just nonsense. He forgets – or ignores – that it was the principle of contribution that Beveridge sought to replace with universality; yes, you still contributed through National Insurance, but for the general good rather than as a private individual. It was the principle of contribution that meant that, before the NHS, men in work received more support for health-care than did their wives or children; Beveridge sought to build a more generous, more collective approach to the welfare state because it was both the right and efficient thing to do. Byrne does not even begin to address the cost and complexity of this idea – something that Beveridge’s universal principle sought to avoid.
Byrne – and Labour more generally – need to understand that the welfare debate is part of a much wider one about the collective versus the individual, and about systemic failure. Of course it’s much easier to spread myths about three generations of worklessness; it means you don’t have to confront the much more difficult systemic questions. But doesn’t – or shouldn’t – Labour have ambitions to be better than that? After all, as I’ve argued before, the rhetoric of individual culpability that Byrne seems happy to adopt leads straight to the door of the workhouse.
And the simple fact remains – talk of sanction almost completely misses the point. There is mass unemployment in this country because there are no jobs; because our economy has been smashed, not by the indolence of a tiny minority of those on benefit, but by the the greed and delusion of Byrne’s fellow bankers which fuelled the bubble that burst in 2008, and by an economic policy of austerity that is, by any definition, failing desperately (except in its success in shifting wealth to the wealthy). The gobsmacking thing about the tone in which the Westminster establishment conducts the debate about welfare is not its unpleasantness, or its lack of evidence; it the sheer frivolity of it all. A grown-up democracy deserves something far better than Liam Byrne’s easy generalities.