Monday 22 September 2008

Welfare reform and Labour values

There is a lot of talk at this Labour party conference - and rightly so - about the need for Labour to reassert its core values. James Purnell appealed to these same values at conference in making the case for the government's welfare reforms. Was he right to do so? What do Labour values imply?

Central to Labour's welfare reform is the idea of 'conditionality': making benefits conditional on efforts to find a job or make oneself more employable. Many argue that this is inherently 'unLabour'. They are wrong. Purnell is right to stress the emphasis which early Labour thinkers placed on welfare as a support to enable people to work for a living, not as a replacement for work. The Labour ethic was that everyone ought to 'do their bit' for the community rather than living off the labour of others.

But Purnell's history is too selective. Early Labour thinkers, such as R.H. Tawney, certainly criticised the separation of income from work. But the main target of their criticism was not the welfare state. It was capitalism - or, at least, specific forms of private property. Tawney's great book, The Acquisitive Society, is a critique of landlords who enjoy big gains in land values without lifting a finger, those able to live off inherited wealth, and so on. It is not an essay about the unemployed poor.

What Tawney saw was the inconsistency and unfairness of applying the work principle to the asset poor and not to the asset rich.

New Labour's conception of social justice, however, has never taken this point on board. Indeed, while tightening benefit conditionality on the asset poor, the Labour government has of late lowered the tax burden on capital gains and inherited wealth. It has thereby made it harder for the poor to consume without working and easier for the relatively affluent to do so.

Of course, it is politically difficult to tax property fairly. But that is, surely, what social democrats exist to do. To get tough on the poor while leaving the more affluent to enjoy (more) unearned wealth implies a very peculiar conception of rights and responsibilities: 'Rights for the Property-Holders, Responsibilities for the Poor!'

I do not know whose values this slogan sums up, but they cannot be Labour's.

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