If you try to hold everything, Frederick the Great once wrote, you hold nothing. That may well have been sage advice if you were a German princeling in the early modern era, but it’s a pretty terrible way to preserve the welfare state. Ed Miliband would almost certainly have done a pretty poor job as the Elector of Brandenburg, but he showed why he might – just – prove to be the man to steer the welfare state through a recessional era this week.
Ed Miliband’s defence of child benefit has drawn ire from predictable quarters on the right; and all manner of friendly fire from the left, with both Philip Inman in the Guardian and Rob Marchant in the Independent weighing in.
There’s a reason why Tony Blair – the most skilful centre-left politician that Europe has produced – oversaw a massive expansion in the number and scale of universal and near-universal benefits. It’s the same reason, too, why centre-right commentators are so keen to don the clothes of social justice to chip away at universal benefits. As another great general once remarked: it’s a trap. If Labour cuts universal benefits in one parliament, the Conservatives will cut what’s left in the next.
Look at the evidence: the benefits that have been most heavily clobbered by the Conservatives. It’s the disabled and the unemployed who took the first blows, because the invisible and the other are easiest to attack. And it’s not just in Britain that retreating from the universal principle stymies progressive advances. Look at the United States: for Barack Obama, passing the Affordable Care Act elevated him to the pantheon of presidential greats. It was the biggest legislative achievement since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. But it almost broke the back of his presidency, put the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, and required not just control of the White House, but a super-majority in both Houses of Congress.
So, the age-old question, ‘How can Labour possibly defend benefits for the rich?’ has a crude answer: ‘How on earth does Labour think it will defend benefits for the poor if it doesn’t?’ There is no path to social democracy anywhere in the world that doesn’t have a universal underpinning. That’s why Ed Miliband was right to underline the importance not just of child benefit, but for public services that are used by everyone.
But there’s a nuanced, and not just a crude answer. Marchant rightly points out that there is something incredibly regressive about money that could be spent directly on the poor being given to the rich: but benefits that flow to the working class and middle class alike, the poor and the affluent alike, are actually being paid to the poorest twice, and here’s why: no government is ever going to pay a team of people to aggressively complain and harangue their way to better public services.
If everyone uses public services or claims a benefit, you have more people who are able to complain about a poorly designed website or a rude member of staff. The most important benefit of locking the middle classes into the benefits system isn’t bribery: it’s in importing cultural capital into improving the way the state engages with the people it serves.
Labour, however, has to realise that defending the universal principle will come at a heavy cost in an era of no money. It means accepting a fiscal settlement that is unbalanced towards the old against the young. It means accepting that state largesse will go towards some people who don’t necessarily need it. But if the welfare state doesn’t provide something for everyone, it won’t provide anything for anyone. Ed Miliband should stick to his guns.
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