Tuesday, 17 January 2012

“If freedom is to be saved and enlarged, poverty must be ended. There is no other solution.”

Some would say quoting Bevan is a cliché. I prefer to think of it as kitsch. Either way, the man nailed the message Labour has forgotten. The welfare state, at its heart, is about freedom. Forget the perks of the barons in Magna Carta, forget the privileges of the London merchant class in the Bill of Rights, it is the creation of the welfare state that stands as the true testimony to British liberty.

Freedom is a concept the Labour Party has too often ceded, allowing a certain faction of the Conservative party to claim it. Not since Orwell called Socialism, “justice and liberty when the nonsense is stripped off” has it properly enunciated its claim to be a protector of the rights of the individual. Yet in handing over this ground Labour has gained nothing, and lost much. It is seen simultaneously as too strong and too weak. Over the New Labour era, the party seemed to take the view that, rather than counter the assertion it was too compassionate (or soft depending on your viewpoint) by arguing for the fundamentals of our social contract, it would do it by a series of bizarre acts of repression. Rendition, detention without trial, the DNA database, ID cards, ASBOs, a whole litany of laws designed to prove it could be harder than the Tories. It was as if any act of social justice had to be balanced in the books with some restriction, to prove the party weren’t a bunch of hippies.

This ‘triangulation’, pioneered by Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party, served Labour well electorally, but it did them great damage ideologically. Trading the allegiance of the liberal-left for the fickle favour of The Sun was bound to become a problem at some point, but the greater issue was to accept the premise that the welfare state is an emotional indulgence. Forgive us the effeminacy of schools and hospitals, we promise to do proper manly stuff like build aircraft-carriers and abolish trial by jury. The problem is that if you allow the welfare state to be justified only as a luxury, justified by compassion, rather than a necessity, justified by freedom and justice, you open the space for its regression and, ultimately, its abolition. For if this is merely a state run charity, why not simply have charity entirely?

This assault upon state provision has been flattered as ‘The Big Society’. Yet it also masks a parallel battle. Recent government actions; Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms, Nick Clegg’s talk of alarm-clock Britain, the notion of withdrawing benefits from those involved in anti-social behaviour, all of these have challenged the old notion of universalism. The language of the debate is not ‘all in this together’, but the notion of the deserving, and the undeserving, poor. It is not enough for Labour to label objectors to what remains of the post-war consensus as the rich and out of touch. If that were so it would be easy. The resentment comes much more from those at the bottom, those who feel they get no benefit from working hard.

As Ed Miliband and others have pointed out, the settlement we now rely upon is born of a wartime economy and the immediate aftermath, where the problem of long-term unemployment, it was believed, had been solved. Everyone would contribute, and so everyone had a right to assistance when they fell on hard times. National Insurance was just that, a state-run insurance policy upon which you claimed, not as a beggar asking for alms, but as an equal party in the contract.

Charity is the opposite of this, and reveals a fundamental, political discordance about who the state should help. If the welfare state is not to be universal, and Labour moved away from this with means-testing, tax credits and other reforms, then we must decide the target. Should the state be giving resources to those who need them, or those who deserve them? And, perhaps more importantly, who gets to make that decision?

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