Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Cut universal benefits, surrender to the conservative movement

The Observer reports that 'a senior government aide' told them that, "I personally think we have got to look at universal benefits. It is unsustainable." Jackie Ashley writes that, "if there have to be cuts, then taking away child benefit from the better off, and the winter fuel payment from richer pensioners, would seem sensible ideas and are on Labour's agenda."

Comically, these are described as measures for Labour to shore up 'the core vote'. They are nothing of the sort. The proposals to get rid of universal benefits are quite simply an unconditional surrender to people who loathe and despise Labour values (and Labour supporters).

It has been a long term project of the conservative movement in this country to undermine the welfare state, and reduce it to a low cost, low quality residuum for poor people. The problem that they have faced is that universal services, from the NHS to child benefit, free bus passes to winter fuel payments, are effective and very popular. There's no intrusive means testing, or having to jump through humps set by bureaucrats, just a simple arrangement where people contribute according to their ability to do so, and receive payments and services which help them out. It promotes solidarity between people, and works as an anti-poverty programme and support for the middle classes all at the same time.

But conservative movement activists, in Britain as in America, oppose the principle of an active and effective government. Their argument is a kind of bait and switch. Firstly, they argue that the government should cut back its spending and only give services to poorer people. Then they turn to the middle classes, and stir up anger that they are paying for other people to receive services, but not getting anything for themselves - and use that anger to help cut back services for poor people.

If the conservative activists get their way, and manage to use the current economic crisis to advance their political project and dismantle universal welfare programmes, it will reinforce their hegemony. People won't look to the government for help when they need it, they will become more resentful of all kinds of spending designed to reduce poverty and inequality, or which ask people to act together or contribute according to their abilities, and they'll associate 'public' with 'second rate'.

The sad thing is that we know what the consequences are when we run an economy on these kind of conservative principles, or when public services get run down because they are only for the poor and those who society judges have failed.

Labour's great achievements in helping people and in making Britain a kinder, more civilised place, has come from using the power of government to help the majority of the people and building solidarity between people from all walks of life. It is sad and pathetic to see government advisers and leftie journalists buying into the values and assumptions of the conservative movement and trying to undermine these achievements.


At 7:41 am , Blogger Hughes Views said...

So if you were Chancellor and had, say, five billion pounds a year to spare you'd give every pensioner in the UK another five hundred pounds a year rather than giving the poorest two million pensioners two thousand five hundred a year extra would you?

And you're happy that someone on a six figure salary gets the same child benefit as someone on minimum wage are you?

In a world of huge income variation, universal benefits are a slap in the face for the poor...

At 11:22 am , Blogger Unknown said...

@7.41 - surely you're not suggesting that the 2,000,001st poorest pensioner gets nothing? The tapering is a very important point here, making sure that a large swathe of the population benefit (and would lose out from cuts) while the poor benefit the most.

At any rate, I think Don is quite reasonably talking about long term tactics as well as short term policy goals. The Nordic experience has much to commend it in terms of universal benefits protecting welfare for the poorest in the long run as well as having other policy benefits.

The important point in terms of income variation is to use the whole range of policy tools available to redistribute wealth as well as ensuring that people in the middle benefit as well.

Aren't you usually banging on about fighting from the centre ground and winning over swing voters? Sounds suspiciously like trying to have it both ways to me...

On another note, I couldn't help but notice Vince Cable's magic cuts package is along the same lines as DP outlines above. It's not just the govt and commentators at fault here, even "Saint" Vince is at it.


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