The context for progressive policymaking has undergone massive change over the 60 years since Crosland wrote The Future of Socialism. Globalisation, technology, changing attitudes to women’s role, immigration, and increased longevity have all had an impact on patterns of family and working life, and the recent vote to leave the European Union has created further turbulence and uncertainty. The context in which the defining mission of social democracy – greater equality – must be achieved has shifted (and continues to shift) beyond recognition.
A series of reforms to our welfare state has attempted to address the implications of these trends. Some have been very successful: the record of Labour governments in reducing child and pensioner poverty between 1997 and 2010 stands out. But an emphasis on social security as a tool for responding to a rapidly changing society has brought the question of its fitness for purpose – indeed, what its purpose is – into sharp relief.
Today, it’s fair to say that while the vast majority of us will benefit across our life course from the protection offered by our social security system, the attitude of the public towards it is one of mistrust and dislike. Conservatives condemn the system for fostering ‘dependence’ (and costing too much), while progressives complain about its failure to reduce inequality. Those in receipt of benefits report feelings of shame and stigma, while cuts have reduced the value of the social support that they receive. Meanwhile, a complex system of means testing, and increasingly punitive conditionality, have depressed take-up and led to a sharp rise in sanctions for non-compliance.
In the workplace, a hollowing out of the labour market has divided the well-qualified, well-paid, and those with a secure attachment to the labour market, from others whose employment experience is fragile, exploitative and sporadic. The inability of the social security system to respond adequately to this phenomenon has opened the way for the thoughtfully conceived (if inelegantly named) concept of ‘predistribution’. Even so, the policy solutions that resulted, while not necessarily wrong, have proved limited in effect. Poverty among working households continues to increase.
Devising policies to address these challenges against the devastating legacy of austerity and post-EU membership will be imperative for a future Labour government. But the policy territory is crowded, and contested, and there will be some hard choices that we’ll have to make.
Of course, reducing inequality and ending poverty will be central to our programme. But is reducing inequality by tackling excess income and wealth at the top more effective and more important than lifting those at the bottom out of poverty, and are we attending sufficiently to both? Do we favour an insurance-based model, pooling and sharing risks across the life course, and across different households and family types? Or should we offer more choice and autonomy to individuals to manage their own lives, using policies such as asset based welfare, tax cuts for low income families, and a guaranteed basic income? Is the priority universal services, or maximising family income? Should the system continue to compensate for labour market failures, or should we refocus our energies on an industrial strategy that transforms the prospects of those most marginalised in the workplace? Do we see the social security system as providing a safety net when things go wrong, or can we transform it into a springboard that enables us to achieve our full potential?
The answer – as ever – will be a mix of all of the above, but the left needs to be clear about how we select our priorities. So we must start by setting out the principles and goals on which we’ll base our policy agenda. The basis for the choices we make must be future-focused and future-proof. That means prioritising investment in the next generation.
Today, children have been all but airbrushed out of the list of priorities for our social welfare system. Mothers (usually the main carers of children) have seen financial support to meet their children’s needs reduced. Investment in the early years and Sure Start has been slashed. Pressure on school budgets is leading to teaching and ancillary staff cuts, while children with special educational or mental health needs find them increasingly unmet. Young people have lost entitlement to a range of benefits that encourage their learning and promote independence. Specialist youth and careers services on which they rely have closed, they lack rights at work available to older workers, and they’re increasingly expected to build their adult lives on a shaky foundation of soaring levels of personal debt, and in a world of shrinking opportunities exacerbated by our departure from the European Union.
In this period of exceptional uncertainty, committing to prioritising our children’s future makes the choices that we’ll have to face to repair the damage that we’ll inherit a little easier to make. That means above all addressing the poverty that so harms children’s life chances. Our priority therefore should be to invest in services to support young people and children (especially in the early years), and in financial support for children. Meanwhile, our industrial strategy must focus on improving mothers’ labour market participation and experience.
Our explicit and overriding goal must be to put our children first. In a fast-changing and uncertain world, their welfare is the best investment we can make.