Following New Labour’s 1997 election victory, a former Director of the Child Poverty Action Group, Frank Field, was appointed Minster of Welfare Reform with a brief to “think the unthinkable.” Thirteen years later, the self-proclaimed “quiet man,” Iain Duncan Smith, having found his voice at the Centre for Social Justice, became Secretary of State for Work and Pensions with a wide-ranging remit to fix a seemingly ineffective and wasteful welfare system.
In the run up to this General Election, there is no sign of anyone of similar profile or stature stepping forward, from either the Left or the Right, to champion welfare reform. The binary nature of the arguments over the purpose of welfare (e.g. rebranding the deserving and undeserving poor as “strivers” or “shirkers”) has not made for a healthy or productive public debate, to the extent that any incoming government would find it hard to reverse many of the recent reforms and attempts to cap overall welfare spending.
Rocket Science recently talked to a selection of thinkers in the field of welfare reform. We found a striking degree of consensus, indicative of the crowded nature of the political middle ground, but also of how the Coalition Government has tapped into public opinion which is more inclined to associate welfare with social failure, than a tool of social and economic integration which can soften the harsher effects of a free market. Asked to identify “the next Frank Field or an IDS” who might offer new political leadership on the role of welfare, our interviewees tended to throw out a few names. However, they were just as likely to comment on how there was no one obvious assuming the mantle which, given the size and importance of the challenge, gives many (particularly those on the Left) cause for concern. The Fabian Society’s projections to 2030, for example, consider what happens to welfare in a “do nothing (more) scenario”: increasing polarisation in wealth (i.e. a continuation of the current trend); working-age welfare spending continues to decline as a total share of social security spending; increasing pension poverty as pensions fail to keep pace with expectations and inflation and fewer people able to save for a decent retirement.
The challenges of rolling out the recent waves of welfare reforms, including the work-related assessment regime, the Personal Independence Payment and the hugely ambitious system of Universal Credit, seem to have narrowed the focus of political and public debate on issues of implementation rather than the setting out of a new vision for welfare. Whilst the former have enormous significance, and have understandably preoccupied many in the voluntary and charity sectors, the comparative vacuum in the debate over a sustainable future for the welfare state is also a threat, at a time when pollsters have reported a noticeable weakening in public support for welfare, particularly among the younger generation.
In this context, it is interesting to reflect on the historical narrative of the UK’s welfare state. It could increasingly appear to have been a relatively short-lived experiment born of the post-War consensus within a far longer history of self-help, community based charity and local poor relief. Indeed it is possible to detect signs among other recent government policies promoting localism, voluntarism and a Big Society, that we are reverting to the continuity of past history and that the post-War collective settlement was an unusual period of discontinuity. If this is the extent of what is at stake (and how we choose to provide for people during dependency says a lot about our society) it is more than surprising that there are not more figures emerging to set out a new social vision for Britain.
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