Significant numbers of people – the majority in fact – feel that the benefits system breaks codes of fairness by providing rewards without commensurate effort. They believe the State should impose conditions and sanctions, cap the amount people can receive and make sure no-one can have a ‘free ride’ courtesy of the tax payer. These feelings may be founded upon mis-information, but that’s sadly neither here nor there. It is what many people feel and as a consequence messages that address these feelings win the most votes. There are only votes to be lost in defending welfare, which is why the Tories have sought to position Labour as the Party of ‘welfare’.
It should come as no surprise then that Labour shadow Ministers should seek to position Labour instead as ‘tough’ on welfare, for at this point in the electoral cycle appealing to these sentiments is sadly the only way for it to establish the legitimacy to govern, in the same way that Labour will be forced to accept the broad parameters of deficit reduction. Moreover, the very framing of welfare reform predates the 2010 election by a long mile and owes its origins to the last Labour government, itself seeking to pursue a broadly progressive agenda but without falling foul of public attitudes or of ceding ground to the opposition. Hence the last government’s emphasis upon rights and responsibilities.
What differentiates the Tories approach from Labour is that the Conservative Party is in the business of promoting responsibilities and….more responsibilities. The abject failure of schemes such as the Work Programme are cast as the personal failure of the individuals who have been made to participate in them, not government having failed to honour its side of the contract. This in turn is employed to justify ever more draconian conditionality regimes which are increasingly similar in structure to criminal sanctions such as community orders. Unemployment is seen as a failure of individual moral agency, not of the economy, just as crime is a product of poor moral fibre, or evil, not of economic or social inequalities.
Talking ‘tough’ does indeed risk signalling a benefits sanctions arms race. Yet a careful reading of Rachel Reeves’ comments reveals significant differences between Labour’s proposed approach and where the Tories are increasingly headed. Commitment to introduce a (compulsory) jobs guarantee, cancelling the bedroom tax, promoting the living wage via procurement. These are most definitely not policies we can expect from the Conservatives because they are policies which renew Labour’s commitment to the ‘rights’ side of the equation.
Many of us may deeply dislike the rhetoric of ‘toughness’, feel concerned about the harm that it does and wonder about its counterproductive effects. But it is fanciful to think that Labour has the luxury to re-cast the debate entirely between now and the General Election. Even were it able to confect a new narrative on social security which spoke to or led public opinion, it is improbable that such a narrative could substantially shift the present one in a way that didn’t risk severe punishment at the ballot box in May 2015.
The public wants government to be tough on welfare and they will vote for the Party that says it will be. What Labour can do is set out the differences between it and the Conservatives in terms of how it will be tough – tough in ensuring government promotes the living wage to really make work pay, tough in giving the long term unemployed a guaranteed job and expecting them to take it. But fair – fair in getting rid of the bedroom tax.
People have complained that Rachel Reeves was reported to have made no mention of disability (or the WCA and Atos specifically) in her interview. On the contrary, I think it was probably extremely helpful that she didn’t. Liam Byrne had begun to forge a new narrative about disability. Reeves didn’t contradict it. Another reason I suspect (but do not know) is that the public on the whole possess much less ‘tough’ attitudes towards disabled people who receive benefits. Associating ‘tough’ with disabled people is not a vote winner, nor is it necessary to win legitimacy to govern. And as Hopi Sen said in an important piece for the Guardian yesterday ‘People dislike welfare in general, but support a helping hand in particular, so it’s essential to move the political debate from “welfare” to specifics.‘ In short, we are are more likely to succeed in relation to disability if we do so outside of the welfare reform frame, as I also proposed recently.
But there are nevertheless important challenges implicit in Rachel Reeves’ words for those us who continue to wish to pursue a better deal for disabled people – one which does not involve the frenzied cutting of the current government, but which does not as an alternative render disabled people simply objects of government benevolence.
First, we have to recognise that our task is to articulate how we can use the public resources that we do have far more effectively and productively before we ask for more. There remains lots of scope to strip out the bureaucracy which wraps itself around the lives of disabled people and their families. Many disabled people face more red-tape than the average small business in seeking simply to live just an ordinary life. When we talk about the ‘benefits Bill’ how much is actually ending up in people’s pockets as against being wasted on unnecessary and over complicated assessments? Why is this government adding more costly bureaucracy into the social security system? Duplication of assessments and fragmented expenditure across national and local government massively undermines the return disabled people and the wider public gets on the investment of public resources. The support people receive is on condition of them demonstrating their lack of productivity – utter madness at a time when resources are so scarce and Britain needs every ounce of talent to secure sustainable economic recovery. The Work Programme has at best an 88% failure rate – we can do better surely and could do so if we put disabled people and employers in charge. Let’s look at integrating health, social care and employment support and creating a new ‘Access to Living’ scheme. Less bureaucracy and red-tape, less duplication, control and responsibility in the hands of those who know best – disabled people, and far more effective support to contribute socially and economically.
Second, we have to look beyond the State for answers. We need to revisit the responsibilities of employers to provide statutory sick pay, pay a living wage, to make reasonable adjustments and to invest in skills. When we think about the extra costs of living faced by disabled people we need to think not just about contributing to these through benefits, but also how those extra costs might be reduced through for example using government spending power through procurement of equipment to bring down costs, through promoting inclusive design and technological innovation (which also contributes to enterprise and growth) and through ensuring that transport providers are making their vehicles, stations and stops accessible. We also need to remove the cost of living taxes paid by disabled people, for example in the way VAT is charged on equipment or the way local authority charging policies effectively mean that the State very often gives benefits with one hand and takes them away with the other. No political party has yet clarified its position on funding (care) and support for younger disabled people.
And third, we have to take account of public attitudes and the next general election. Attitudes to disabled people may be more benign that those towards other groups, but that in no way delivers Labour a mandate to increase its overall spending. Nor are those attitudes necessarily the one’s which will help us to build a society in which disabled people are regarded and able to participate fully as equal citizens. Labour may not feel compelled or wish to use the language of ‘toughness’ with respect to disabled people, but if we wish to avoid seeing any further progress on disabled people’s rights and opportunities coming to a halt we need to increasingly talk about disabled people’s contributions, socially and economically, to British society. So for example we might say:
‘Disabled people are net contributors to British society. Almost half of all disabled people are in paid employment and many more would like to be given the right support and opportunities. Disabled are as likely to engage in voluntary activity as non-disabled people and are much more likely to be unpaid carers than non disabled people. Disabled people already are and will help to build an inclusive recovery and a fairer and more sustainable society. All that is asked in return is for a dignified life, meaningful support and real opportunities to play their part’
That sounds like a tough but fair deal to me?