Comment: Labour doesn't have the guts to challenge Osborne on welfare

Ewen Speed is a sociologist and co-editor of the blog 'Cost of Living'.
Ewen Speed is a sociologist and co-editor of the blog 'Cost of Living'.

By Ewen Speed

To lurch is to "make an abrupt, unsteady, uncontrolled movement or series of movements". In a fortnight of Labour policy pronouncements on welfare policy, Ed Miliband has been vilified by his party grandee's for lurching to the left. To paraphrase Tony Blair he is accused of undermining the success of the 'third way' and of returning to a 'familiar left/right battle'.

A week later, the same Labour party announced 'student-style salary loans' for the unemployed. This is apparently based on a perceived need to restore contributory principles in welfare provision. This might be read as a lurch to the right – it certainly does not score heavily in terms of a politics of wealth redistribution.

Unless Miliband issues a distinctive challenge to the debate on welfare reform he will allow the right to dominate the argument and he will be left splitting hairs about who is (and who is not) 'deserving' of welfare.  This then leaves bolder claims for welfare as a positive and necessary social good unstated.

The problem with Labour's central policy agenda on welfare is that it does not begin to tackle the assumptions put forward by the Tory led coalition. These then gain an acceptance as the only option 'in town'. For example, George Osborne, in announcing the government's welfare reforms at the beginning of April, quite unproblematically talked about the reforms benefiting nine out of ten working families. Just to be clear, this means the reforms will negatively impact upon ten per cent of working families on benefit – a not inconsiderable number of people. No comment was made on this shocking figure.  Such has been the success of coalition articulations of deserving and undeserving poor (of 'strivers' and 'scroungers'). These processes of vilification (on the back of Philpott and other extreme outliers) need to be problematised.

The perceived political legitimacy in monstering those on benefits, (where outliers are identified as the logical conclusion of a 'benefit culture') is where the real political challenges need to be made.  To talk of student-style salary loans is to talk only to the 'strivers'. It assumes a return to work; it does not adequately address areas with high levels of multiple deprivation where inequality and exclusion coalesce to present insurmountable barriers to those seeking to return to work. It valorises the individual as the rational agent who can choose to 'strive' and then accomplish anything they put their mind to. This view ignores the massive inequalities and persists in regarding welfare as a conditional individual benefit rather than a universal citizenship right.

Make no mistake – the coalition policies on the NHS, education, social care and welfare do not mark a radical departure from the previous Labour government. Indeed they are very much a demonstration of the 'success' (note the quotation marks) of the third way. We would not be on the brink of a privatised NHS were it not for the preceding legislative programmes, with foundation trusts, the illusion of consumer choice and deeply embedded markets in public sector provision. The pendulum has swung so far to the right in UK policy that for Blair to accuse Miliband of lurching to the left, he has to be actually lurching towards the centre ground from the right. There is little in the Labour welfare plans that contest the idea that the free market leads to better growth, higher prosperity and more equality in all areas of policy. In failing to address this, they fail to challenge the prevailing view that it is all about identifying the 'scroungers' and 'strivers'. This is where real political capital can be gained, rather than bickering over who is more deserving.

Ewen Speed is a sociologist and co-editor of the blog 'Cost of Living'. He is interested in health care policy and ways in which these policy processes speak to bigger notions of citizenship and the neoliberal state. Much of this interest is reflected in the Cost of Living blog, which is concerned with the changing social and political (as well as economic) costs that are associated with health, health care provision and welfare in the 21st century. He is a senior lecturer of medical sociology, in the School of Health and Human Sciences at the University Essex.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


Load in comments
Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.