The pressure is on
by Claudia Wood
Yesterday, Demos hosted Liam Byrne’s second Beveridge Lecture, on the subject of universal benefits. Some might have been forgiven for thinking Byrne was going to use this opportunity to acknowledge that the era of universal benefits, backed by full employment, was long gone. That our modern service economy, more liberal and individualistic society and realities of austerity point towards a more pragmatic welfare state – perhaps one with more means testing.
But instead, Byrne surprised many by boldly reaffirming his party’s commitment to what he described as the first two principles of Beveridge – universal welfare and full employment.
He laid out a position which can be summarised thus:
• Labour will aim for full employment in order to afford a more generous welfare state with universal benefit entitlements.
• A key element of this will be in helping more disabled people in to work, as their high levels of unemployment were a barrier to improved national productivity.
• This, in turn, will be achieved with a strategy based on “making rights a reality” – that disabled people have the right to work and live independently, and on “capabilities” – an approach which looks at what disabled people can do and supporting them to fulfil their potential, rather than focus on their limitations and deficits.
The argument, set out like this, is inherently appealing. But it is also highly ambitious, and provokes significant questions regarding its delivery.
Yet whilst Byrne was eloquent in his criticism of the current government’s approach (coining snappy phrases such as ‘conservatism of contempt’), and articulate on the principles on which his vision was based, he was reticent when it came to the nitty gritty of what this would mean in practice and how it would be achieved.
But this was what people were really seeking. It was clear, from the questions from the floor and via twitter, that it was all well and good quoting Amartya Sen – but actually, people wanted to know what elements of the Welfare Reform Act would Labour repeal? Would they sack Atos?
These might seem somewhat banal, perhaps even inappropriate at a “big vision” event such as the Beveridge lecture. But it’s exactly these sorts of questions - and dozens of others like them – that will form the Opposition’s alternative offer to the government’s welfare reform strategy.
But Byrne resisted attempts to be drawn into such detail. The elephant in the room, of course, is how does one create full employment? This shouldn’t be taken literally – Beveridge’s own definition of “full” employment was actually unemployment under 3 per cent - but even this hasn’t been a realistic prospect since Byrne was a toddler in the early 70s.
Making the right to work a reality for disabled people means tackling huge, entrenched barriers – both practical and cultural – in every workplace across the UK. This isn’t something that one can set as a target lightly or expect to have sewn up in a couple of years. Are we talking job creation and subsidisation, at a time when Labour’s own reform process is about to come to fruition and make the Remploy model extinct? And what about those who can’t work? What rights and capabilities should they be enjoying? Does universalism mean restoring child benefit to higher earners and removing the time limitation on Employment and Support Allowance and JSA? Does a capabilities approach mean stopping the cuts to DLA? If so, where does the money come from to undo these acts, in the no doubt lengthy transition period while we move toward the full employment ideal?
I think Byrne was aware that his speech raised more questions than it answered. And to address this, he proposed to consult those who are perhaps most expert on these matters. Disabled people themselves. He said he would be:
“taking evidence around the country from people with disabilities, from carers, from campaigners, from public service and business leaders about how we renew the universal in the universal welfare state by turning rights into reality”
This has been given a warm welcome by those feeling shut out by the Government’s consultation on welfare reform, the failures of which were so eloquently exposed by the Spartacus Report. But asking disabled people and other experts how to turn the Beveridge principles into a workable – and affordable – plan is not without risk. It could place Byrne in an impossible position when he has to return from his evidence gathering tour and work out where the money will come from.
So now, the pressure is on. In so strongly reinforcing his Party’s commitment to the Beveridge principles, Byrne has raised expectations of Labour producing a credible alternative to the government’s current welfare reform strategy. And soon. One can’t fault his grasp of the ideology and theory on which it will be based, and his conviction behind this vision is laudable. But those nitty gritty questions can’t be put off forever.