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What’s the welfare state without universalism?

A few weeks ago, Jon Cruddas appeared on Newsnight to float a number of policy ideas mostly related to the future of the Welfare State. On the whole there was little to give comfort to the millions of people suffering from brutal Tory austerity – the take home line was “foodbanks are here to stay”.

The most radical of Cruddas’ suggested was a fundamental challenge to the Welfare State as we know it. To me (at least), the basic social contract in this country has been that everyone contributes to a Welfare State according to their ability to pay and then everyone has access to the support they need in times of hardship.

However, the policy apparently being given serious consideration by party leadership is to warp this contributory principle and link out-of-work benefits directly to how long people have worked and how much they got paid. It has been described in the Telegraph as a system “where people who have worked get higher payments than those who have not”.

This is the clearest indication that the Labour leadership is prepared to cede ground to the Tories’ tactics of tearing up the Welfare State through a false division between “scroungers” and “strivers”. It seems that Labour’s policy may very well be to create a divided welfare state where “strivers” who have been able to work are deserving of a higher rate of support where as feckless, idle “scroungers” are undeserving of a similar level of benefits.

Over at Labourlist, Mark Ferguson has done an admirable job of defending this policy and, to his credit, has pointed out one of its most obvious flaws. What about the million young people currently out of work? Many of whom will never have even had the opportunity to work and contribute to our Welfare State.

Of course, this is not a flaw that is limited to youth unemployment. The issue of whether people contribute to the welfare state is not based on choice, but the availability of paid work. The 146% rise in long term unemployment is not because of a 146% rise in people being too lazy to make a contribution to the Welfare State. Yet these people would be punished further for the lack of jobs available.

For those who are able to find work at the moment, we know that for many it is only part-time. Meaning that should they find themselves unemployed again, they’d receive a lower rate of support due to their limited earning potential. Due to the increasing casualisation of jobs in the UK, more and more people are moving in and out of temporary work. Under Cruddas’ plans, these people, unable to build up a record of constant employment, would be worse off.

The example that Mark Ferguson gives is of a 50 year old having worked their whole life and says the Welfare State should recognise this. But what of a 50 year old woman who took out 10 years from paid employment to work at home caring for her children, does she deserve to have this counted against her if she loses her job later in life? What about someone who has been a full time carer, unable to take a paid job because of their responsibilities, probably working many more hours than a full time job? Should they get less money if they return to paid employment but then lose their job?

Labour has done fantastic work in challenging the “strivers vs scroungers” rhetoric by opposing the Bedroom Tax and the cut in benefits, but this proposal gives even more ground to the Tories on benefits. It means that the principle of the Welfare State will not be the needs of people, but whether they are considered to be a “striver” or not. It will not shore up support for the Welfare State because it plays further into the narrative of the right-wing tabloids and the Tory party that eroded it in the first place.

Social solidarity within the Welfare State has always been based on its universal nature. Any proposal which attacks universalism by creating false divisions between the deserving and the undeserving poor will only polarise public opinion further against support for the most vulnerable – and that doesn’t sound very “One Nation” to me.

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