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Surrender on welfare

The Labour party's capitulation on social security for the young is not an appropriate response to the modern world, but a dangerous step into the past.

Protest in 2011. Image: Gyakoroljuk a demokráciát!

Labour’s proposal to end out-of-work benefits for 18-to-21-year olds, trailed ominously as the party’s “first plans for cuts to the welfare system” is a cynical and punitive electoral manoeuvre that encapsulates its surrender to the coalition’s shameless offensive against social security and its own focus group politics.

It is all the more shocking to ask, as Jon Cruddas invited a Compass gathering on Saturday to do,  why this idea for an education and training youth allowance was plucked out of a wide-ranging IPPR report, The Condition of Britain, and given an anti-welfare emphasis for Ed Miliband’s speech made at the launch of the report.  As the Guardian reported, “The move is designed to symbolise Labour's determination to reform welfare, making it more closely linked to what people pay in, as well as cutting the benefits bill”; and that the move reflects the finding of a poll for IPPR that 78 per cent of the public believe that the welfare system is failing to reward people who have worked and contributed to it.

Cruddas is of course the party’s policy review chieftain. Quite what this title amounts to is open to question, given his bemused anger over the way in which this mean onslaught on the young unemployed was shorn from the rest of a report brimful of proposals to devolve power and responsibility over a range of social policies for housing, welfare, care of children and the elderly.  The most significant of these proposals, a universal free child-care scheme for three and four year olds, wasn’t merely glossed over; it was dismissed by party officials.

The overall aim of the report – the creation of “social equality” within the re-imagining of the big society, is noble enough. But the youth allowance, which is formally designed “to prevent the drift into adult benefits” is, like Labour’s seizing of the idea, actually designed to prevent social security for unemployed people from becoming or remaining “a liability for social democrats”. But do “social democrats” remain social democrats when they punish the young for the failures of the labour market to provide employment and of our schools to educate them properly; when they turn to workfare as the solution to national structures of inequality way above the heads of the victims of that inequality; and when they cynically pretend that the education and training on offer will actually make a difference?

Something like 100,000 18-to-21-year-olds will suffer on the cheaper allowance which will be means-tested – another surrender from social democrat principle.  Altogether, figures from the Office of National Statistics, just released, show that youth unemployment remains stubbornly high, at 853,000 of 16 to 24-year-olds.

We have been here before with the Labour party. Throughout my active political life – since I joined the Child Poverty Action Group, as director of welfare rights in the 1960s – they have consistently failed to stand up for the principles of solidarity and reciprocity that lie at the heart of a Liberal bureaucrat’s plan for postwar social security. My considered view is that they share the age-old prejudices against people on welfare. Be that as it may, the party has consistently been prepared to bow to those prejudices. In the later 1960s, Judith Hart MP, a woman with apparently impeccable left-wing credentials, introduced a series of restrictions on entitlement, including the notorious “four week rule”, under which young fit single people were denied benefit if they failed to find work within four weeks on benefit. There was a lot of humbug about supposed “safeguards”, but the effect was to drive young people into misery and destitution and to prostitution and suicide.

I understand the additional emphasis on the contribution principle is Labour’s response to the crisis in social security. But the party cannot go back to past to build for the future. We no longer live in the postwar era of secure, and often life-long, work and so-called ‘full employment’ which for a time made the contributory principle work well enough – though even it began to fail well before the financial crash. But it cannot possibly work in the new insecure ‘flexible’ labour market – neo-liberalism’s version of Hobbes’ “nasty, brutish and short” - which has created what Guy Standing has identified as a new class, “the precariat”. One of his remedies for this new reality is to introduce a new universal basic income. I used to think it would be impossible to introduce basic income in the UK; now I think there is no alternative.

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About the author

Stuart Weir is a political activist. He was formerly editor of the New Statesman when he launched Charter 88, and director of Democratic Audit at Essex University.

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