Services for the poor …

Frederick the Great

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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Stephen Bush writes a weekly column for Progress, the Tuesday review, and tweets @stephenkb

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Photo: Rob Weir

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  • Andy Farrell

    While I can partly understand this I fear it is a view of a political elite, that the party should not be sharing, especially when it comes with the line. “If Labour cuts universal benefits in one parliament, the Conservatives will cut what’s left in the next”.

    Not doing something because it opens the doors to the Tories, should they be re-elected after we have is not only naive defeatism, it is hardly progressive more just long term sitting on the fence and, with the system as it, is the burying of heads in the sand of the worse kind.

    Cameron is setting a dividing line between the classes, not because it is some great political trap but because it is what the Tories do Labour should challenge him, set a cap which the majority could in reality only ever aspire to earning and set any dividing lines on ‘our’ terms.

  • http://alexross.wordpress.com/ Alex Ross-Shaw

    I guess my main issue with this is how we win an election while defending benefits for millionaires.

    A better way to look at it might be to assess which benefits could be universal and which can be means tested. I’d sooner have universal child care than universal child benefit, for instance.

  • http://twitter.com/robincturner Robin Turner

    The means test is devised to keep working class incomes low it has to be assumed as that is its obvious effect.

    A progressive income tax would ensure sufficient level of funding for decent services available to all. There is no need to justify millionaires getting the benefit of services. It is their right just as it is the right of the poorest in the land – that is the principle and we must be proud of it.

    Cameron and his chums would still pay for additional services such as social engineering in private schools – if they have enough money left when we get a progressive income tax system. the problem is that income tax only provides around 25% of revenue so what needs to be done is to increase that and reduce the other taxes and the poorest would benefit the most.

    It could be done with the IT facilities available now.

  • http://twitter.com/joejervis89 Joe Jervis

    The universalism line of thinking may cost Labour the 2015 election.

    The Labour hierarchy (and more widely those lefties trapped in the political bubble) need to get their heads round how the silent majority feel about the benefit system.

    Hard working families, whether they take home £25,000 or £60,000, haven’t become disillusioned with the benefit system because they haven’t received the money back which they put in – they’ve become disillusioned because they feel too much money is being wasted on those who don’t need it. Ie those unemployed not looking for work, but also rich families who don’t need it.

    Most people want to see benefits as a safety net (social security) for those who have fallen on tough times and are trying to sort their lives out. They are not asking for benefits themselves!!

    Furthermore, it damages Labour’s economic credibility to give free handouts to people who don’t need it when most people believe that cuts are necessary.

    If this doesn’t cost Labour in 2015 then it will certainly cost us a second term in 2020 – as failing to get the silent majority on side will mean a One Nation movement can never really take off.