Wresting back ground on welfare
What we are seeing now is a revolt of voters on middle incomes against the cosseting of the very wealthy by the Conservatives.
However, we have a long way to go before we can assemble a broad electoral coalition of people on low and middle incomes in support of fairer rewards at work and expanded opportunities across the whole of society. George Osborne and David Cameron have provided a political opening, but progressives need to seize it.
As the national pie shrinks, arguments about the size of respective slices will become much more intense than during the boom years. This is true not just in terms of public spending levels but with regard to wage levels. Labour in power avoided making a moral case for social equality. During the boom years high levels of state spending were able to ensure that families living in deprived neighbourhoods received top-ups to their wages at the same time as middle income users of the health service noticed shorter waiting times for hospital. Those days seem a distant memory.
Labour voters became more resistant to redistribution throughout the Labour years, whilst the attitudes of Tory voters remained constant. The failure to make the case for social equality made the real and often enduring gains of the Labour governments much more fragile to Tory attack. The tax credit strategy was designed in part to create a commonality of interests between people on low and middle incomes in favour of redistribution. However the fact that Labour ministers never argued openly and self-confidently for redistribution provided the political space for the right wing and its outriders in the press to further stigmatise welfare spending and benefit recipients. As a result, efforts to characterise welfare as a springboard – and not simply a safety net – were completely obscured.
However the real showdown over equality will take place around the time of the next general election. At the 2010 election there was no debate about the distribution of financial pain across the populus. However in 2015 these arguments will be unavoidable. We already know that a considerable budget deficit will remain past 2015. George Osborne wishes to ‘divide and rule’ by making welfare recipients the target for the bulk of remaining spending cuts. He will seek to pit the poorest sections of society against those on middle incomes, hoping that Labour will find itself on the wrong side of this divide. The cuts that have already been made to the welfare budget threaten both to uproot or split up families, and to place unacceptable pressure on disabled people.
Labour can secure electoral support – both from vulnerable people who need short term safety nets and struggling families on low to middle incomes – if it reframes the argument on welfare. Ed Miliband began to do this in 2011 when he argued for rewarding individuals who make a clear social contribution to their communities: tightening the link between what you contribute and what you receive from the state. The principle is clear and easy to communicate. It is also crucial to beginning the process of wresting back the argument about welfare from the Tories. It is the Conservatives who now offer ‘nothing for something’ as they pare back contributory benefits.
The unifying principle we can put forward is that our society – whether through wages, taxes, benefits or opportunities at work – is failing to provide fair rewards. The most successful social democratic states, such as the Nordic countries, have their redistributive policies underpinned by strong cross-class support. In Britain we have to achieve a similar political settlement. New thinking, like a reassertion of the contributory principle, is an important step towards this objective.
Dr Matthew Sowemimo is a Labour activist. He has managed campaigns on issues like tax avoidance, global poverty and employment rights.