The Only Way is Universal?

By Jade Azim / @jadefrancesazim

I fear the Left has lost a crucial battle.

The 1997-2010 Labour government was, rhetorically, obsessed with making welfare popular.

“This is not a denial of self-interest” Tony Blair argued at Labour’s 1996 conference, “This isn’t a killjoy philosophy. This is enlightened self-interest. In a society in which opportunity is extended we have greater security, our streets are safer, our young people more motivated, our ambitions better fulfilled.”

Blair was trying to frame welfare as self-interest in contrast to both collective altruism and to top-down paternalism. He intended to frame welfare as aspirational, as was New Labour style, ever conscious of the apparent decline in collectivism in the British psyche. This is why Gordon Brown called his new in-work benefits ‘Tax Credits’. He didn’t want them to be seen as ‘benefits’. And it is for this reason that, just last year, the Tories faced an upheaval: people were willing to defend welfare they didn’t consider welfare. This was New Labour’s lasting legacy.

But for other forms of welfare, Tony Blair did not succeed in reframing the debate. After thirteen years of government, welfare remains a major obstacle for Labour. According to the Beckett Report and most post-mortems both before and after it, one of the factors in our defeat was that we appeared too ‘soft’ on welfare. Meanwhile, our membership -understandably- cannot stomach the principle of the welfare cap. Indeed, the cap and other cuts have pushed 600,000 children into poverty. So what on Earth can we do?

In the short term, we could gamble and hedge our bets. We could continue as we are and confront the climbing welfare bill with our own socialist answer: build homes and regulate rent to reduce housing bills, raise wages to slow the growing number of people on in-work benefits, and classically try in vain to argue against the Benefit Street image of JSA claimants.
This might address fiscal arguments, but it doesn’t address moral opposition. Cultural opposition based upon perceived fairness.

The problem, as any sociologist wonk will tell you, is that there is no reciprocal ‘gift relationship’ in a means-tested system. Richard Titmuss’ famous ‘The Gift Relationship’ described what now manifests as the ‘NHS principle’, whereupon support for the NHS is widespread because “citizens circulate between the ranks of the sick and the healthy”. The intent of universalism is “to promote a gift relationship between the independent and the dependent, by giving public expression to the circulation of citizens among these roles.”. Ultimately, universal services that we all access give expression to what Blair intended to champion: self-interested welfare. In this system, there is no ‘us vs them’, the universalist service is insurance. But why do we no longer think the same of the ‘security net’?

The reason for the absence of a similar expression toward the safety net, such as the Job Seekers’ Allowance and other means-tested welfare, is that we do not view welfare recipients as taxpayers. We instead see them as dependent on us, and us as absent from that circulation of dependent and independent. This leads to stigma and toxicity; a constant in liberal welfare states such as the United States and the United Kingdom.

With such a prolonged entrenchment of stigma against welfare that has not had the benefit of the NHS principle inscribed onto it, welfare that benefits a few and is supposedly paid for by the many, I fear we have already lost the argument.

We see New Labour’s legacy not only stripped away, but stripped away with popular public consent, bar tax credits. The result is the 600,000 children taken out of poverty being plunged back into it.

This is not to say that the Tories get off scot-free; vast swathes of the population still consider them nasty, but certainly not enough to keep them out of government as we saw in 2001 and 2005. For a certain minority, the pain of unfairness simply serves to reinforce wider points about the necessity of deficit-cutting for a perceived greater good.

The climate that has existed since the financial crisis, whereupon the lowest-paid, stuck in a rut of wage stagnation, are working longer hours and struggling to pay for basic costs, makes a lot of people receptive to welfare cuts to those considered to have not been affected by the crisis at all; or worse, to have in fact caused the crisis.

The prospect of reversing this, of winning the argument, is bleak and seemingly fruitless: we stand guilty, a lot of the time, of accusing the very people we should stick up for of stupidity because of their prudent views on welfare, without understanding that it was we who lost the argument and it is we who should take the blame. Such is so that we look increasingly out-of-touch and elite to continue on the same path of argument we usually take with welfare. That being, reacting to caps and cuts with moral aghast.

We must face up to it: defending means-tested welfare is, if not an impossible task, a very difficult one. It is our fault we let the argument slip from our hands these past five years, but it has happened nonetheless.

The answer is not, however, to concede on welfare. To concede would be to see hundreds of thousands more plunged into poverty, into foodbank use, into homelessness. What is at stake is the future prosperity of the country. The greatest challenge of our time is social and economic inequality. The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the Western world. As much as education or health, the welfare state and its redistributive basis is a key instrument in both preventing and correcting this. We cannot just sit by and see it wither away.

We also don’t have to concede that the public are wholly unreceptive to seeing it corrected either. Most believe and know the UK to be unequal. We all, largely, agree on this diagnosis, but we disagree on the solutions because our morals and principles over more traditional means of redistribution are all over the place. For instance, UKIP voters say that tackling the gap between rich and poor is a higher priority than taxes and benefits.

We often do not connect welfare with inequality. This is where Ed Miliband got it both right and wrong; he pinpointed the problem, but failed to find a popular or competent solution. We were seen as too soft on welfare even if, or in spite of, people believing the system is unfair and rigged.

We cannot continue as we are. Perhaps the only reform is wholesale. That’s why I suggest that, in the long term, for both sustainability and electoral prospect, expanding ‘the gift relationship’ should be a path we consider.

The classical example of universalism is the emerging idea of the citizens’ basic income; a policy being experimented with in the Dutch city of Utrecht and in Finland, and already advocated for by some on the British Left: Caroline Lucas recently called for a cross-party commission.

Importantly, it has been championed –at least in principle- by various experts and economists. The major criticism of its enormous cost, most agree, is that it would be offset by ending other costly social policies; policies currently stigmatised and despised.

It is also an idea worth considering because of just how radically reshaped our economy has become and will continue to develop. We have an economy that demands high-skilled jobs but is leaving ordinary people trailing in its dust. We have a government refusing to invest in education and skills development, leaving a low-paid, low-skilled workforce picking up the scraps. More and more jobs in the future will be done by machine. Wages will almost definitely not keep up with living costs; The Fabian Society predicts that low-income households will see their incomes rise by just 2% over the next 15 years. The future economy demands of us a new radical outlook.

The difficulty, though, is that it is only an idea. It may have its economic justifications, but It is also obviously a very difficult idea to implement, both electorally and in practice. Idealistic to the left, it’s going to appear completely amoral to the right. Convincing the electorate that those that are ‘idle’ should get ‘free money’ would be a huge gamble, but ultimately that is how the electorate already sees us now, as we champion means-tested options.

At the very least, us on the British Left should keep an open mind and observe how pioneer states try to implement universal basic income. The danger is one we constantly fall into: an unrealistic dream of Scandinavian social democracy in Britain. I know this, and it has, in the form of a grounded and realist devil, been sitting on my shoulder yelling at me as I have wrote this. But the economy is changing, Britain is being reshaped along with the rest of the world, and we are failing ordinary workers and those left unemployed. There are frames and strategies from our Scandinavian counterparts that can help point us in the right direction, but fundamentally, the new British economy needs a British, not Scandinavian version of universalism.

So what would British universalism therefore look like? Or, more so, what would the British argument for universalism look like? We are not Scandinavia, we have had a liberal welfare state more akin to that of the United States than Norway. One rooted in perceived fairness, meritocracy, conditionality, and hard work. But we are not the United States either; we built the NHS, and we can point to examples of collective insurance forming part of British national and cultural identity. It is the NHS principle that needs applying elsewhere, to see basic income as a human right just as we see healthcare; to see reciprocity at the heart of the welfare state, and to see ourselves as dependents and independent. If we are going to try to justify this, a campaign of any form must include that word; ‘NHS’: to explicitly touching on the NHS principle that is sustained both by self-interest and collective values.

In such a way, as Blair saw fit, it is partially about self-interest. Too obsessed are the Left with idealistic notions of altruism alone; a driver for at the most, 1/3rd of the population. Self-interest, and self-sustainment, must be the key justification, but it can be paired with reciprocal collective values. It must be about everyone being given a positive freedom to aspire, a level playing field to achieve the individual’s dream of security. And universal welfare is more in keeping with self-interest, and collectivism, than means-tested welfare – because everyone benefits. The stigma cannot lay at one man’s door.

But is it just too big a challenge?

The task presented is manifold: seeing that a future, more universalistic welfare state is an economically credible plan, selling it as such to a sceptical British public who sees us as high-spenders and will inevitably see this initially as pie-in-the-sky, and selling it as moral as well.
This is a long-standing task for Labour, far more so than any normal electoral cycle. It is a process of normalisation It will take many decades. It involves looking toward sustainability and growth that considers just how low-skilled the economy currently is and how high-skilled its demands are. But this argument will not be won easily. It potentially won’t be won at all. This is a challenge for both advocates in Labour: if it is not an electoral offer that can achieve success now, when will it be? How and when can this project unfold? All I know is that as it stands, we have lost the old argument as well. Which gamble do we choose?

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