I have a lot of problems with what I understand by conditionality, apart from it being a term of jargon and one which means nothing to people outside politics. Personally I would like to see the back of it within politics too.
There was a sad inevitability about James Purnell’s pronouncements regarding the threat to withdraw benefits from alcoholics if they don’t accept treatment in the conditionality drive. The logic of conditionality is that groups of people out of work for any perceived self-inflicted reason (such as addiction – the argument of whether this is a choice as Nick points out is highly debatable) will all eventually be dealt with in the same manner.
I sympathise with Nick’s blog on NextLeft and his initial reaction, while also understanding Zio’s critical response that this has been going on for years and years. Anyone following welfare “reform” should have seen this coming. Conditionality is the buzz word of the moment in welfare reform and has been for a couple of years, even though in practice this theory was in vogue before. It is apparently originally a term used by the World Bank to describe the conditions on loans to third world countries, but it has been adapted to the individual scale. It encapsulate Tony Blair’s belief in reciprocal rights and an unwritten contact between the state and the citizen. For a party who frequently has dilemmas over how to treat the unemployed (i.e. they do not want to attack the working man who has been made redundant but they also do not want to be soft on them), conditionality seems the perfect word to use for Labour.
However, for a progressive party the problem with a policy of conditionality is it is inherently negative. In my (perhaps cynical) opinion one of the main drivers behind conditionality is the belief that there are lots of people on benefits who actually need a threat to get off them. To put it simply, it is the stick rather than the carrot. This is surely feeding into the popular myth that the majority of people on benefits deserve to be there. It seems to be blaming the individual rather than society for their problems and so it lets the politician and society avoid real welfare issues.
At its extreme, I sometimes wonder where the logic of conditionality can lead to. If somebody is perceived to refuse your conditions do you then withdraw all benefits so they are on the street?
I do appreciate the point that there has always been some conditionality (although not called that word) in society. For instance, job-seekers allowance is meant to be conditional on looking for a job. On the other hand, I would argue that society can only exist if it is built on a certain level of trust. Furthermore, pushing ahead with conditionality in today’s economic climate seems like bad timing to me. Surely, we should be spending our energy on looking at all the possible ways to support the unemployed rather than ways of punishing them?
Conditionality also undermines Labour’s attempt to deal with child poverty. To take a fictional example, what would happen to the notorious Shameless family of TV fame in their garden of Eden if Frank Gallagher’s benefits were cut? He is an un-reformed and un-reformable alcoholic, but should the rest of his family suffer if he doesn’t wake up in time for his alcoholic anonymous class? On a more serious note, it reveals the practical dilemma of withdrawing benefits; namely, that the repercussions inevitably go far beyond the individual and hit the whole family.
As a progressive community I hope Fabians challenge the term conditionality and think about what it really means.
n.b. If anyone can give me a progressive defence of conditionality, please go ahead.