The problem we have when talking about welfare reform is that for many years Labour has failed to have a debate with itself about what we believe the welfare state is for and therefore what welfare reform is intended to achieve. Welfare reform has instead become a default term for cutting the welfare budget. If this is the intended outcome we should be honest about that, but also honest that this is not reform. It changes the size but not the shape nor the effect of welfare; it reforms nothing.
There are two very distinct visions of what welfare can and should achieve. There is the classic safety net approach, where welfare is simply about rescue and support, and a people-centric approach which is both more intensive and more intrusive but is helps to enable and empower those citizens who, at some point, find themselves financially reliant on the state, in the long term.
The value of the safety net approach is that it is simple and understood by the public. Costs are more easily controlled through the increasing and decreasing payments out and in of this social insurance scheme.
While the debate around welfare remains wholly rooted around the overall cost of the welfare bill, the safety net approach is the only approach that can address this in any meaningful way. If the starting point in the welfare debate is to see immediate cost reductions, then that can only be achieved within this framework. It then becomes a political battle about what is spent, for how long and on whom. There is a divide between those who say that all who need it should be comfortably supported for as long as is necessary, and those that believe such support in and of itself is debilitating and creates a dependency that is itself a cruelty.
While current circumstances (not least that we have a Tory government hell bent on imposing ideological change and breaking citizens’ ties to the state at any given opportunity) mean that the cutters are winning that does not mean that all on the left can and will wish to shift the focus to a different approach. Instead the campaign from some quarters has been focused on protecting the welfare safety net approach from cuts, increasing payments through this system and challenging current and growing levels of conditionality.
To move to a person-centred approach to welfare would take a revolution on so many fronts that it seems almost dauntingly impossible.
In our current financial circumstances, the concept of investing to save has future costs is an extremely difficult sell. There would have to be change at every point of the welfare process. A huge investment would be needed in resources, training and staffing. While I believe all these costs are recoupable in the long term by differences that would be made in ensuring the far greater productivity as well as health and wellbeing for citizens whose levels of deterioration would be far greater and more destructive (and thus ultimately expensive to the state) if intervention is not attempted or is unsuccessful, these are hard political arguments to make to governments who by political necessity are focused on the short term. Electoral politics is not a long term game – post-crash politics especially so.
But it is not just financially where revolutions in thinking and attitude will be needed. A move to a person-centred approach to welfare will mean significantly more flexibility in terms of approach from the state. It will take recognition that there is no one solution that works for everyone who is disabled. No one solution that works for everyone who is unemployed. No one solution that works for everyone who is low paid. Pathways to work, productivity and good health outcomes are many and varied. They will need to be found in a partnership of equals between all those involved. People must be both required and encouraged to invest time and effort in their own development and to agree effective outcomes that work for them and for society – from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.
Given the long and rather inglorious history of welfare reform, it is understandable that many of the constituencies who might most benefit from such an approach if done well (let’s call it the antithesis of Atos) would be at best cynical about government’s ability to deliver such a programme and at worst downright suspicious of their motives for doing so. Given all that these groups have been through, making them a vital and essential part of the design of any reform of welfare is essential. But given all that they have been through, are going through and are about to go through, you can understand their suspicion of the party that brought Lord Freud to this arena and let him loose with a baseball bat. Why wouldn’t that constituency find it easier simply to try to fight to protect the imperfect system they know have?
It is not yet clear what path Labour will take or even if we yet recognise that a choice must be made. Both paths are set with danger and will face resistance. But let me be clear: if we continue to fudge between them, we will achieve nothing and continue to exist as we do, with a creaking and unsatisfactory system that has neither the support of users nor of the wider public. If the language of welfare reform becomes simply a way for Labour to manage the decline of the welfare state, that will be the greatest tragedy of all.