Two cheers and a challenge for James Purnell
There are few phrases which make the heart sink like 'James Purnell gives a speech on welfare reform'. At a Progress meeting, no less.
But yesterday's speech drew some clear dividing lines between Labour and the Tories on welfare policy, with Labour on the centre-left of the debate, and the Tories way out on the right.
He described the Tory idea of the 'broken society' as being about picking on 'imaginary groups usually named after television programmes', minorities which are easy to stigmatise. They claim that there is this massive problem, but then announce that they are powerless to fix this problem because they want to roll back the state. They take their inspiration on welfare systems in which the main incentive to work is fear. And the nearest they came to any solutions is to say that the voluntary sector will sort everything out, but Tory-run local councils have been cutting the budgets of voluntary groups.
Purnell said that Labour's alternative to this is about using the powers of the state to sort out specific problems which are affecting real people. This approach has had many successes in reducing poverty over the past ten years. It is also important to learn from countries like Denmark and the Netherlands which have very high employment rates. So the next steps are to offer more support in return for people taking more responsibility. A more generous welfare state, Purnell argues, requires something in return. For example, the government will offer people more support to get a job, but people have a responsibility to look for and take work.
It's genuinely nice to hear a government minister draw a clear difference between the Tories and Labour on welfare reform, with Labour setting out the case for collective action to reduce poverty and increase employment, rather than just say that the Tory plans are bad because they would cost more, or that the government are already doing what the Tories say they want.
The test, though, will come when the government publishes its welfare reform white paper. The evidence of the last few years shows that when the state offers more support, people do make good use of it. For example, higher benefits for lone parents have gone hand in hand with more of them getting jobs. The 'something for something' rhetoric, however, if not implemented carefully and with compassion, can end up with unfair consequences. One danger from recent changes due to come into force later this year will be that disabled people end up having the amount of money they have to live on cut because of the whim of a bureaucrat. With welfare policy, it is not just the overall theoretical framework that matters, but all the things which often bore politicians, the technical decisions about how to implement a policy, the local knowledge to ensure it works well, the 'poverty proofing' to ensure that no one ends up worse off and so on.
Perhaps above all, though, it will be interesting to see if Purnell and his colleagues have the courage of their convictions. The active state can help people get jobs and can help reduce poverty, just as he says. The problem at the moment is not that it is doing too much, but that it is doing too little, that's why poverty is increasing. There would be a lot of support for some really bold action. Perhaps unusually, there's a recent comment on Labourhome which sums this up well. An article had suggested that welfare reform should include longer parental leave, shared between parents; free universal childcare; rights to flexible working hours, including parents to stay at home when children are sick; and pay audits to crack down on unequal pay. The comment was:
"I agree with all of this. I doubt there would be many on the left or right of the party who would disagree. So why on earth haven't we implemented it?"