What do the public care about? Well, outside immigration and the economy, the pollsters tell us that there is one other topic that dominates the national conversation: welfare.
So what you make of the welfare state, and its future, is no small question in British politics. Controversial television programmes such as Benefits Street and others might spark furious indignation, but they generate little understanding of how our welfare state works, or how we got here.
Alongside John Hills’ great book Good Times, Bad Times, this new work by Andrew Gamble does not attempt to swerve the detail on the long history of the welfare state. From the Poor Laws, through Bismarck, Beveridge and Bevan to the contemporary debate and beyond, the book is rich with rigorous historical analysis. In fact, it goes even further. The history of the welfare state is a practical example of the history of ideas and thought itself, and Gamble treats it as such.
In order to see clearly where we go next, we need to think through the principles that guided past politicians. Conservative and socialist political thinkers have drawn upon the philosophical moral foundations of egalitarians, consequentialists, libertarians and feminists. Anyone who thinks they understand the political or economic history of welfare but has not considered these deeper justifications would do well to read what Gamble has to say.
Like Hills and others, Gamble takes a broader definition of ‘welfare’ than just benefits for the deprived. Rather the welfare state includes the myriad of interventions that governments make into the lives of their citizens: schools, healthcare, and pensions. So this bigger vision begs the question: how do you decide what power the state has to shape the choices individuals can make?
For those of us on the left, he describes the journey of socialists from initial skepticism of state intervention, preferring self-organised responses to poverty and inequality, to its great defender. On the conservative side he provides expert analysis showing how the right once supported the welfare state given their patrician stance towards the severe poverty that unfettered markets create. But once Nozickian libertarianism took hold of conservative politics, the view that the state should roll back and allow individuals to exercise their freedom has dominated.
So how should those of us on the left respond to the rise of this libertarianism?
Gamble’s book walks the reader through challenges ahead: funding, demography and social change, and the global economy. These are important questions that must be attended to.
In the last parliament there was much discussion on the Labour side regarding the ‘contributory principle’. The idea was suggested that contribution based social insurance could redress the libertarian criticism of the welfare state by reinforcing the argument for welfare as a ‘contract’ with government.
But the shortcoming of this argument is evident from the experience of people – for example, those with disabilities – over the same period. Cuts to support for those who could not reasonably be expected to work are rightly seen as punitive. What if your ability to contribute is constrained by factors beyond your control? A contribution principle – where those who can pay more will be entitled to more – whilst important for other objectives, does not deal with the challenge that inequality poses to us.
So commentators now have turned towards a new universalism, and Gamble’s book mentions this. But I think the example he gives – minimum income policies – is a missed opportunity. The problems with a minimum income policy are legion given that it would either be seriously expensive, or offer a much worse deal to those who have less.
However, there is in my view a better version of new universalism: universal childcare. More directly supportive of the labour market, more focused on dealing with the high costs of family life (that Beveridge himself wished to address), and more effective at improving life chances given the impact on educational achievement of high quality childcare.
That said, this is an incredible useful book, on a subject that could not be more important.
Alison McGovern is chair of Progress and member of parliament for Wirral South
Can the Welfare State Survive?
Polity Press | 152pp | £9.99
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