There is quite a political storm brewing over the government's latest welfare reform proposals which will see a tightening of work-related conditions for certain groups such as single-parents.
Some, like Minister for Work and Pensions, James Purnell, argue that the reforms reflect Labour's long tradition of work-based social justice. Others, like Compass, argue that the reforms are unjust, at least here and now, with the economy in recession. Who is right?
Here are some key points which I think we need to bear in mind.
First, conditionality is not necessarily unjust. There is a long-standing socialist tradition which emphasises the idea that, in a just society, each citizen should do their bit productively if they share in the wealth that others help to produce. In principle, conditionality can express this principle of reciprocity. 'From each according to ability...'
But, second, to enforce work in welfare in a highly unequal society risks unfairness because it impacts the welfare poor and not the rich. If it is unfair for the welfare poor to get 'something for nothing' (income without work), it is also unfair for someone who lives off unearned wealth - inheritance or unearned capital gains - to do so. But 'welfare reform' only enforces the work obligation for the poor person.
Third, to enforce work in welfare in a highly unequal society also risks unfairness because it might reduce the bargaining power of disadvantaged workers. With more pressure on the unemployed to get into jobs, the wages and working conditions of jobs will tend to be driven down, exacerbating inequality.
This third point has particular force when an economy is in recession. It might also have particular force when for-profit contractors win contracts to manage welfare-to-work schemes based on how many people they commit to getting off benefit. (This is not the same as saying that their involvement is wrong per se.)
What do these various points imply?
One view, which I think is consistent with the points, is that a social democratic government may proceed with welfare reform, of the kind which tightens work-conditionality, but only if certain further conditions are met - conditionality is conditional.
First, the government needs to do something to offset the unfairness of the asset rich getting 'something for nothing'. This means that things like inheritance taxes and capital gains taxes should go up.
Second, the government needs to do something to prevent or offset possible reduction in workers' bargaining power. This might mean giving a stronger emphasis within welfare-to-work programs to upskilling than to 'work first'. It might mean a higher minimum wage and, indeed, a whole lot of other things.
But, not least, as Polly Toynbee argues, it should mean putting the big stick of benefit cuts aside until the recession is over.
Does the government itself pass the relevant conditionality test?
If we apply the framework set out above, it doesn't look like it....