Thursday, June 28, 2007

He's not a racist but...

Tony Blair's government (it feels weird to be referring to that in the past tense) expanded the welfare state - massive improvements to the NHS, expansion of childcare and Sure Start, the introduction of the minimum wage and so on. It is hard to imagine any of these being reversed, and for all that much more needs to be done in all those areas, these are all policies which have helped make our society better and more civilised than it would otherwise have been.

By contrast, some of the cruellest and most disastrous policies have been the ones which cut away the support which people needed. From vouchers for asylum-seekers to the failure to build enough social housing, where the welfare state failed or deliberately excluded needy people, misery and suffering resulted.

I thought that the above was relatively uncontentious, until I came across an article by Geoff Dench in the Guardian yesterday. It was unpromisingly sub-titled "Margaret Hodge is right - from housing to benefits, we can't ignore tensions between the working class and new immigrants" and it ran through a set of arguments which are finding increasing numbers of adherents.

It runs like this:

1. Working-class Labour supporters value mutual support, self-reliance and people who contribute to the community. There were the principles on which the welfare state was originally set up and it was good.

2. Middle class liberals in the 1960s changed the welfare state so that instead it provided according to need. This undermined working class values but middle class liberals didn't care.

3. Mass immigration exposed the unfairness of the welfare state, because immigrants benefit from the welfare state because they are "needy" even though they haven't contributed.

4. For many years, the left were able to suppress criticism by calling anyone who thought it was unfair a racist. But with mass immigration and New Labour abandoning the working class, this stopped working so well, and people started voting BNP.

5. To her credit, Margaret Hodge acknowledged that this was happening and listened to the concerns of the long term residents of her consistuency. The left said this was bad, but it helped make sure that the BNP didn't do quite so well in the elections in 2007, suggesting that when Labour does balance its appeal, by showing respect for local communities as well as "needy" individuals, it hangs on to traditional supporters.

This argument pushes a number of buttons for people on the centre-left - the working-class have been abandoned; middle class liberals have imposed their values on working-class communities; we must understand the grievances which make people vote for the BNP; we need to have a proper debate about the effects of immigration and not just call people racist for raising difficult issues. So what's wrong with it?

Firstly, it simply isn't true that Margaret Hodge helped Labour do better against the BNP. There are some MPs who lead local campaigning efforts and devote a lot of time to making sure that the local party is an effective campaigning force. There are some who devote themselves particularly to campaigning against the BNP. There are some who do their bit during election campaigns but not much for the rest of the year. There are some who go on holiday during election campaigns and are totally idle. Any of these different strategies has been proven to be more effective at defeating the BNP than that of Margaret Hodge. After Margaret Hodge made her comments (in 2006, not 2007 as Dench seems to think), traditional Labour supporters stayed at home or voted BNP in unprecedented numbers. Not one of the MPs who represent an area where the BNP have been unable to gain a foothold, or have been in retreat, supported what Hodge said. There is no evidence that abandoning the provision of services to people on the basis of need would lead to electoral success.

For Dench this is not just a pragmatic argument, but a moral one, harking back to a Golden Age. But his historical analysis is even worse than his understanding of electoral strategy. When Nye Bevan set up the National Health Service, it was based on the values of self-reliance and not helping people who did not make reasonable attempts to manage on their own resources. This would, I suspect, have been news to Nye Bevan as he worked to ensure that for the first time healthcare was available free when it was needed, rather than doctors making moral judgements about who deserved to be let off the fees and who didn't, as before the war.

It gets weirder and more wrong. The values of self-reliance have apparently been undermined for the last thirty years and replaced with a centralised system based on the principle of redistribution. Margaret Thatcher has been accused of many things, but Dench is, I believe, the first to accuse her of undermining self-reliance in favour of liberal left ideas about redistribution. Writing about the development of the welfare state without mentioning Thatcherism and castigating only the liberal left is another sign of how his case is more a piece of polemic than based on any analysis of the relevant facts.

But there is a far more fundamental problem with what Dench is arguing. Even in a world where Margaret Hodge was an election strategist of genius, in touch with her local community, and where welfare policy had seen thirty years of liberal left hegemony, his suggested ideas for fixing the problem do not work. He writes, for example, that, "One way to get into social housing is by having many children. So where, sceptics would ask, does "need" end and "lifestyle" choice start?"

It is not a 'lifestyle choice' to be a child in a large family, and it gives a hint of the malevolence behind this argument that Dench would even hint that he thinks it is. Of course, he doesn't have the courage to explain what the effects of doing what he suggests would be. So let's spell it out.

The other day, I was talking to an asylum-seeker who has been living in Britain for the past few years. He has now got the right to remain and is working. While his application was being processed, he fell ill. He couldn't visit a GP, so didn't get the illness treated early. As a result, it developed and is now terminal. The cost of his time in hospital and the care he needs is far greater than the cost would have been if he could have been to a GP when he needed to.

If we prevent families from getting social housing because we don't think that they have been self-reliant enough or they haven't made enough of a contribution, then there will be more children in care or sleeping on the streets. Breaking up families and vastly expanding the number of children in care is more expensive than providing social housing, and I hope even Dench would start to feel some qualms if the number of rough sleepers expanded because of his moral judgements about their 'lifestyle choices'.

Denying people the medical care that they need so that their illnesses become terminal is not an expression of traditional working-class values. Nor is forcing families to live in overcrowded and unhealthy housing, or forcing them to sleep on the streets.

The problem with public services is not that they help people in need, but that they aren't able to meet enough of the need that exists in our society. Posturing about allocations policies doesn't reduce resentment about access to social housing, building more social housing does. New services which help everyone, 'deserving' and 'undeserving' alike, are widely popular. Attempts to find other ways of deciding who can access services don't work or are unpopular.

There is a choice ahead. Over the next decade Labour can build on the best of the Blair years, expanding services of housing, healthcare, income, education, childcare and much more, giving people much greater liberty and freedom and increasing tolerance and solidarity. Or we can follow the path which Dench and others call for and which tempted Blair and his ministers all too often, creating a moral panic about who deserves support from the state, and introducing incoherent and ill-thought through policies which cause unnecessary misery and suffering. Until Labour is replaced by the party which truly believes that the welfare state creates a 'dependency culture', and that people don't have 'needs', only 'lifestyle choices'.


At 9:31 am , Anonymous tim f said...

You're quite right (of course) - most people don't care if asylum seekers or any other group who have contributed less than them get the same service that they are getting.

They do care if they are being deprived of something they believe asylum seekers are getting and that's why myths about asylum seekers getting council housing (thanks, Margaret Hodge) are so potent.

I don't suppose Dench went on to suggest that it would be a good idea to allow asylum seekers to contribute by removing restrictions on working?


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