The Labour leader’s deliberate vagueness on social security is a betrayal of those that elected him hoping he would rebuild Britain’s broken welfare state, argues Alan Lockey
Perhaps it was inevitable anyway. Nevertheless, the significance of the 2015 welfare reform bill to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership ascent is surely indisputable. As his three leadership rivals demurred, only Corbyn rebelled against the party’s official ‘abstain’ position to vote against £12bn worth of Conservative welfare cuts.
For the grassroots this abstention was the final straw – the moment when any last vestige of deference towards its leaders vanished. If Labour’s mainstream could not be trusted not to triangulate on something as fundamental as cuts to welfare, then perhaps they could not be trusted at all. Corbyn was thus cast as the one, true keeper of the party’s progressive flame. The moderate dam burst; the impossible was now the inexorable. Labour activists consoled themselves. Things would be tough electorally, yes. But at least they could be sure matters of burning injustice would no longer be weighed against the claustrophobic demands of realpolitik.
Well, maybe. For while Corbyn has undeniably stretched the broader boundaries of political plausibility leftward, on building a more generous welfare state his Labour party remains strangely mute. Indeed, ‘social security’ received but a single, oblique mention in this week’s party conference speech. What is more, even this passing remark – ‘we are very clear: we will stop the cuts to social security’ – was couched in terms more familiar to the pre-Corbyn era of timidity.
Whenever a politician uses the phrase the phrase ‘we are very clear’ it is a sure sign they are anything but. And during the election campaign, Labour’s position on welfare was very far from lucid. In some areas – disability benefits, young peoples’ housing benefit, carers allowance – its manifesto was foursquare behind greater compassion. But elsewhere the waters were somewhat muddier. On universal credit, the manifesto seemed around £5.8bn short of a total reversal of Conservative cuts. Meanwhile, on council benefit cuts, the benefits inflation freeze and even the very same welfare cap that drew such ire in 2015, Labour either said nothing or openly conceded they could not yet afford any redress.
Given how the manifesto also claimed to raise nearly £50bn a year in extra tax revenue this seemed, at best, a hollow defence. Could Labour really not have directed some of this largesse towards erasing the post-2015 government welfare agenda? Was this not precisely what Corbyn voted against two years ago?
Perhaps, being charitable, Corbyn’s speech marks the genesis of a new approach. But this would seem a bizarrely offhand way to commit to billions of extra public spending. No, more likely Corbyn was practicing the dark political art of deliberate vagueness. After all, stopping new cuts is not the same as reversing old ones. Nor does his statement bind him to any action on a benefits freeze.
It is difficult to make excuses here. Ignorance, certainly, is no defence. Despite the mockery hurled in its direction, Corbyn’s Islington North constituency contains more than its fair share of social deprivation. Political expediency too fails to provide an alibi – Corbyn ally Ken Loach has provided a rich cultural slipstream for a more principled stand with his film ‘I, Daniel Blake’. The punitive cruelty of Britain’s welfare state is now firmly lodged within the multiplex, mass consciousness.
Labour should cast off this unfathomable calibration and put rebuilding our broken welfare state at the heart of its project. Social security reform has been at the heart of every successful Labour government: Attlee created the welfare state, Wilson retooled it for a rapidly expanding professional class, while New Labour used tax credits to ensure work paid even as wage growth slowed. Dismantled by the government that model is now imperfect. But Corbyn’s plans to reinstate it, let alone replace it with something more in tune to the demands of a modern, technologically advanced labour market, remain woefully undercooked.
And all this while the European left and centre are awash with policies that seek to use a 21st century welfare state to maintain the fundamentals of flexibility, security and social protection. From Emmanuel Macron’s liberalisation, to Denmark’s reimagining of Scandinavian ‘flexicurity’ and the various experiments with a universal basic income, there are ample models for Labour to explore. Worse still, the government’s catastrophic rollout of universal credit is already evoking memories of the poll tax. And as inflation ticks upwards, the benefit freeze will hit Britain’s poorest harder and harder in real terms. When the social consequences of this become more visible, Labour’s policy of only ameliorating some of these cuts will look increasingly inhumane. Back in 2015 it may even have been labelled ‘Tory-lite’.
As digital modes of production replace the industrial, this is a question that will not go away. Labour activists were right in 2015 – Britain urgently needs a more generous, compassionate and flexible welfare state. It is about time the leadership heeded their message.
Alan Lockey is head of the modern economy programme at Demos. He tweets at @Modern_Lockey
Credit: Richard Gardner
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