I want to talk about welfare reform. Liam Byrne won’t let me.
Resheath your pens, denizens of the Fourth Estate. This isn’t a tale of shadow cabinet ministers cracking down on free expression by humble bag-carriers.
Over the New Year holiday, the forces of Twitter were unleashed on the shadow secretary of state for work and pensions. He knew they would be. He wanted them to be. Otherwise he wouldn’t have pre-briefed the Daily Mail in advance of his not-massively-controversial-when-taken-on-its-own Guardian piece on welfare reform. Not being a paper that puts many coins in the nuance meter, the Mail duly obliged with a piece heavy on the rhetoric of ‘scroungers’, ‘cheats’ and ‘evils’.
The Mail article predicted a fight with ‘the left’, a prediction that even Old Mother Shipton could probably have managed to get right. Though when the fight immediately came, those ranged against the ‘new line’ on welfare included large sections of the Labour centre and right as well. Again, Byrne won’t mind. Some have said he’s a Blairite who still sees getting into a scrap with both the intra- and extra-Labour ‘left’ (however defined) as a vote winner. Being increasingly disinterested in such labeling, I’ll simply describe him as a politician doing what a certain breed of politician has always done – seeking identity through conflict. It’s a tactic as old as the hills and generally about as useful for gaining votes as said hills.
Twitter, like the Daily Mail, isn’t a great place for nuance. It provided very little over those days. A lot of the condemnation that Byrne received, particularly over the Mail piece, was more than justified. Sure, there’s those who can’t see the words ‘welfare’ and ‘reform’ together on a page and not immediately label the writer as a Thatcherite lickspittle. But there were many who pointed out precisely where the language of ‘the scrounger’ leads us. To the demonisation of the vast majority of genuine benefit claimants, to finger-pointing, to misplaced blame. To the steadily growing instances of hate crimes against the disabled, to the suicides, to the stigma and to the political space it gives to the forces of reaction in the two governing parties to chip away still further at the welfare settlement.
These, by themselves, are more than good enough reasons not to engage in such easy, throw-away rhetoric, even if the words that appear under your actual byline are far more measured. But there is a further reason: by doing so, you in fact close down the debate on welfare reform and make genuine reform all but impossible. You condemn the British welfare state – the Beveridgian inheritance Byrne proclaims himself to be an heir of – to another decade of managed decline.
Let me be honest – I don’t think the British welfare state works. That doesn’t mean I want to throw every recipient of benefits on the breadline. For probably somewhere in the region of 99% of claimants, I would be happy to die (metaphorically at least) in the last political ditch to ensure a continued guarantee of those benefits. But I’m not necessarily prepared to offer even so useless a sacrifice for the system that calculates and writes that cheque. The Welfare State is a post-war creature, predicated on full employment, jobs for life, stay-at-home mothers, the nuclear family and predictable cycles of boom and recession. Like a vast, gothic cathedral, it is a magnificent edifice. The very scale and noble purpose of it can make the most secular heart sing. But we’ve tried patching it up to make it more suitable for the modern age. It’s worked in places – the tax credit system is doing a passable job of keeping the rain from leaking through the sacristy roof, for example – but there’s only so far this can go.
The British welfare state is inflexible, complex, user-unfriendly, faceless and unpersonalised. When I make those criticisms, that doesn’t mean I want a replacement which is less generous or more austere to those in need. In fact, I want to see a system which doesn’t lead to billions in benefits going unclaimed – as many have pointed out, that, in terms of scale, is the true scandal, not the relatively limited benefit fraud.
But I also know that one of the key pillars of the post-war welfare settlement is legitimacy in the eyes of the public. I’ve canvassed enough Labour heartlands (and non-Labour heartlands) to know that this is eroding. A lot of that is due to misreporting and misplaced rhetoric, based on a very limited number of genuine case of welfare state failure. But tell me that the average Labour voter doesn’t like the language of ‘scroungers’ and ‘cheats’ and I will laugh in your face.
That, however, is not an excuse to perpetrate it. By doing so, we simply enter an arms race with the Tories which we cannot win.
A political party cannot ignore public opinion; nor should it believe it cannot play a part in shaping it. The counsel of despair which is governance by the top-line findings of opinion pollsters leads to a non-courageous style of government which would never, for example, have seen Labour Home Secretaries abolish the death penalty or lower the age of consent. Rather than demonising the old welfare settlement, and particularly not those who depend on it, you address the concerns through a new settlement in which the majority can have confidence.
Soaring unemployment is creating a new influx of welfare state users, from a wide range of social backgrounds, including large numbers of graduates and professionals. Not only does this render a shift to generally abusing welfare recipients as politically short-sighted, it also misses that opportunity to build a new, legitimated, welfare settlement. The ‘new unemployed’ will quickly discover the shortcomings of the current system – the petty bureaucracy, the low payments, the unwelcoming JobCentrePluses, advisers who, whilst committed, are going to struggle with this influx. They will demand change, improvement. And they have the political clout to do so.
This new unemployment is a personal and economic tragedy, yet it is also a political opportunity to forge a new consensus. A welfare state that is based around work where possible, and a comfortable existence where it isn’t; that personalises its offering for each client; that provides genuine training and (properly) paid work opportunities; that doesn’t stigmatise or dehumanise the long-term claimant. And yes, maybe Byrne is right to suggest a greater role for the contributory principle – I am not going to attack him for wishing to emulate parts of the often highly successful welfare systems of much of northern Europe.
So, I should be excited by the opportunities for welfare reform, and for my party to be spearheading them. But I’m not. Because instead, Liam Byrne has catapulted us into a pointless, degrading and actually rather childish debate about linguistics. Rather than a victory for those who want to debate welfare reform, even if we don’t agree with every dot and comma of Byrne’s stance, he has handed a victory on a plate to the conservatives (lower case ‘c’ intentional) on both left and right who will countenance no reform. He has removed the option of nuance and made it harder for genuine welfare radicals to put their heads above the parapet. And by failing to link in policies on job creation to the narrative on welfare reform, he has left many people shaking their heads as to the disconnect with the most pressing economic debate.
I disagree with Liam Byrne on a lot, but I don’t think he’s an evil benefit-snatcher. I’m not, as Owen Jones puts it, ‘ashamed to share a party card with him’. I joined a broad church party, and by doing so happily accepted that I’d be sharing a card with Byrne. But I thought the leadership had learnt some lessons on the linguistics of welfare reform. To my mind, Ed Miliband’s biggest mistake since taking over the leadership was the line in his Coin Street speech in which he appeared to qualify himself to judge a man on incapacity benefits’ ability to work. This soured an otherwise thoughtful and intelligent speech on responsibility ‘at top and bottom’, and rightly caused anger. At party conference, Miliband seemed genuinely contrite and understanding about why that had been an error. I don’t think he, personally, will make it again. But he has allowed Byrne off the leash to make that mistake on his part, and by doing so has damaged the prospects of a new welfare settlement being at the heart of Labour’s next manifesto, where it belongs.