According to the Daily Mail (NB clicking on that link will contribute to the Mail’s advertising revenues), Ed Miliband and Liam Byrne are about to launch an attack on the “evil” of benefit scroungers. The Left blogosphere and Twitterati have been driven into overdrive by this; some condemning the way in which an alleged party of the Left bows to cheap populism and lets Tories and their papers drive their agenda; and Labour loyalists trying to dissemble. My own view is that a political system in which politicians jockey for votes by demonising the poorest and most vulnerable in society is badly broken, and those politicians who do so are beyond condemnation; it’s cheap, cowardly and even New Labour should know better.
However, one of the stranger aspects of the whole business is that Liam Byrne makes these comments in the context of a forthcoming lecture on William Beveridge, and tries to portray himself as Beveridge’s legitimate heir. It’s an interesting parallel to Nick Clegg trying to do the same in front of the Liberal Democrat conference last March.
It’s strange because Beveridge was a powerful advocate of universal benefits. And, following Beveridge, there are two types of arguments; the practical and the political.
First, the practical – obviously if a benefit is universal it cannot be claimed fraudulently. The moment you means test a benefit you have to set up an apparatus to evaluate claims, process paperwork, manage changes in circumstances, enforce against abuse (the last of which turns the state into enforcer where it should be enabler). Universal benefits are cheap to administer, fair and in principle free of abuse. Indeed the very act of means-testing introduces abuse into the system – abuse happens because people try to beat the rules and the suggestion that you can exclude abuse by tinkering with those rules is asinine. More seriously – since there is little hard evidence of deliberate abuse – you introduce the risk of mistakes in the system, and you raise barriers that make it more difficult for people to claim their entitlement. That is the position in Britain, where the amounts of benefit that go unclaimed are vastly greater than the amount of fraud.
Second, there is a serious political point about how universal benefits emphasise what one is entitled to as a citizen – the citizen is not a supplicant, and although some of those benefits may go to the middle classes who do not, in the strictest sense, need them they help make society more cohesive and ensure that those who depend on those benefits are not stigmatised. It emphasises that we are, to coin a phrase, all in it together. It is about society establishing that everyone is entitled to a decent minimum as a matter of right.
Where would Beveridge stand today? It’s worth remembering that for Beveridge, enforced idleness was a terrible social evil. The level of mass unemployment among young people in particular under the Con Dems would have horrified him; the idea that mass unemployment was a price worth paying for clearing a deficit caused by the fecklessness of the bankers would have repelled Beveridge’s old-fashioned sense of morality and probity. And he saw a National Health Service as an absolute condition of a decent society.
The narrative of benefit scroungers is an ideological myth. Yes, there is undoubtedly abuse, but compared with the £16 billion of unclaimed benefit each year and the squalor and despair of mass unemployment, it is minor. If Labour was a decent party, true to its roots in Trade Unionism, in Christian socialism and Fabian improvement, and retained a shred of the decency and compassion that drove its founders, it would have the moral courage to stand up to the myth and debunk it. As R H Tawney wrote in his great essay on the choices before the Labour Party following the split of 1931, “to kick over an idol you must first get up off your knees.”
But Labour’s leaders no longer have that decency – the latest pronouncement reflect their policy in Government and in opposition. They’re quite happy it seems to dance along to the Tories’ ideological tunes and abandon the people on whose behalf they once spoke. The poorest in society – single mothers on benefits – have seen their real income fall by nearly 20% in the past year. There are many people for whom Miliband and Byrne’s latest pronouncement are enough, and have packed up their Labour membership. Others who choose to stay should examine their consciences – and understand why a growing number of people on the Left see Labour as part of the problem, and nothing to do with the solution.
And, please, could they, and Clegg, have the decency to leave Beveridge out of this.