by Anne Archist
Labour are trying once again to re-invent themselves; 2012 has already seen a new attitude that amounts to exhuming the short-lived corpse of Blue Labour.
The media identified prior ‘re-launches’ under Miliband’s stewardship in June of last year and November of the year before, not to mention that his election as leader was itself supposed to de-toxify the Labour brand after the Blair-Brown years. Each previous attempt also utilised Maurice ‘The Baron’ Glasman’s “if you can’t beat them, imitate them” logic; this time, though, the leadership’s ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche’ ideology has been dressed up in Beveridge’s old clothes, saved for just such an occasion.
Blue Labour is enough to make a Marxist miss Brown Labour. At least Gordon ‘Golden’ Brown realised it was “the economy, stupid” and had some tentative ideas what could be done about it – The Baron would rather have us believe that modern society’s inexorable autosarcophagy can be stemmed by getting more bums on pews at St Saviour in the Marshes. Liam Byrne is the whipping-boy tasked with the triumphant fanfair, and is at least an improvement on Glasman. The Baron wrote and said the sorts of things that would make you choke on your bourbon biscuit in shock as you casually perused the Guardian website over a cuppa. Byrne is the kind of character who might make you emit involuntary Marge Simpson impressions, but not cough up crumbs and hot tea over your keyboard.
The big news is that Labour are “reclaiming [Beveridge’s] vision, learning from his political courage, understanding what has gone wrong in recent years as well as what has worked”; they must “become the radical reformers again”. Like a student who forgets to attach their essay to the e-mail, Byrne seems to have all-too-conveniently left out the details. There are hints at what the new approach to welfare policy might be, and some of them aren’t pretty.
Encouragingly, Byrne savages the current system’s treatment of the ill and disabled, and ends on a high note: “Beveridge’s first principles are the right place to begin”. But the warning signs are all there, and we have come to expect no better from ‘triangulated’ Labour: “Beveridge would have wanted determined action from government to get communities working once again, not least to bring down that benefits bill to help pay down the national debt”, “He never saw unearned support as desirable”, so “let’s restore the idea of ‘something for something’”.
Now, as it happens, although Liam Byrne was neither born nor elected in my local area, he was educated here in his adolescence. I would like to think, then, that having experienced a world where around 30% have no qualifications, unemployment has frequently hit 10% or higher (with youth unemployment particularly high and a relatively high number of people never having worked), there is a high measure of overcrowding and 30% live in council housing, Byrne might have some understanding of the problems facing – and generally the lives of – those who rely on the welfare state in some form.
On the other hand, Byrne also sat on the committee that drafted legislation penalising phone usage by drivers, and then got a fine and points on his license for… yep, you guessed it, using a phone while driving. Perhaps, then, it would be too much to expect of him. While paying lip service to the content of Beveridge’s skilful and considered (though still imperfect) report, one gets the impression that Labour are more keen to vicariously cash in on its kudos than to implement its ideas as policy. This impression is all the more forgivable in light of New Labour’s record, and especially given the continued influence that Glasman’s ideas exercise over the party leadership (despite the formal dissolution of the Blue Labour project after the aforementioned ugly comments made by The Baron himself).
It would be a massive coup if Labour could produce something like the Beveridge report these days. Of late, state-commissioned research has been getting more slapdash and significantly shorter, with all of the loss of detail, balance and elucidation that implies; consider the 2010 Browne report into Higher Education, a total wash-out weighing in at only a nominal 60 pages (which is misleadingly high considering that ~5 pages of that are taken up by appendices and references, and the report itself contains more blank space and pictures than your average colouring book). The 1963 Robbins Report into Higher Education, to put that into perspective, had 335 pages. Obviously I’d rather give the number of words since this is a better standard of comparison, but this is difficult for technical reasons and you get the picture at any rate.
It’s not just a question of the length of the report and the level of detail and the development of the logic that was possible as a result. It’s also a question of the mind and principles behind the recommendations; the principles were laid out honestly, the best practical application was explained meticulously and with sharp insight. As Liam Byrne points out in his article, the general public responded so positively that there were queues to buy the report. Beveridge strips his subject matter bare and builds his thought process up in a clear and honest way that can be followed by anyone inclined to do so, rather than filling the text with jargon or tacitly presupposing a narrow ideology. If every report were like the Beveridge report, bureaucracy would not be such a bad thing.
Labour have two choices. They could attach a dynamo to Beveridge’s coffin and prove themselves partially useful by forcing him to spin – with a bit of luck they might be able to power a constituency office with the electricity generated. Alternatively, they can take the challenge seriously and commission talented intellects to conduct a wholesale enquiry into the modern benefits system and its intersections with other areas of state and market activity. Taking this route would mean considering not only issues like the incentives provided by child benefits, but also the relationship between wages and benefits in their various forms, the future of social housing stock, the feasibility of full employment (which Beveridge assumed in his report), etc.
While it may not be immediately apparent, these questions are vital to understanding why the benefits system works as it does, and how it might work differently. The level of benefits or the conditions associated with them do supply incentives to act in one way or another, but they do not do so in a vacuum. The consequence of a particular policy (setting a threshold just so, or banning this type of person from receiving that payment) depends hugely upon other social variables that exist alongside the benefits system but are not themselves part of it. Even Byrne’s colleague Diane Abbott made this point effectively when she noted that the housing benefit bill “reflects a conscious political decision by successive governments to subsidise (mostly) private landlords rather than invest in affordable council housing”.
While we’re looking at benefits from different angles, let’s also remember that there are more things in heaven and earth, neoliberal, than are dreamt of in your economics. It shouldn’t be a surprise if someone values 15 hrs of their time more highly than the £15 difference it would make to their income. We should re-evaluate which factors are taken into consideration in determining payments and how – should 2 friends living together get any more or less than 2 partners living together? We should be clear about what sort of behaviours we are incentivising or penalising and why – do we want less children (say, for environmentalist reasons) or more (to counteract the aging population and pay for their parents’ pensions and healthcare, perhaps)?
If a re-examination of the welfare state dodges problems like this then it will have ensured its irrelevance and its inferiority to the original. In fact, it’s tempting to suggest that Miliband might as well just re-publish and re-read the original Beveridge report in its entirety and apply the principles and arguments laid out in it to the contemporary situation, since it’s difficult to imagine the modern Labour party producing or commissioning anything of great positive significance.
Byrne hits the nail on the head when he says that what is needed is radicalism, though I doubt he has the stomach to put this concept into action – healing the malaise of the welfare state may mean rebuilding the entire taxation system from the ground up, ensuring structural full employment, introducing a universal minimum income (like that proposed by the Green Party), or other wholesale changes to basic components of our economy and society. Byrne is all bluster, but calling his bluff could yield real fruit.