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Much discussion today over welfare reform and more opportunities for the public to get to know James Purnell, the most consistently impressive of Labour’s next generation. If the debate sometimes seems opaque, it is because it is taking place at four levels:

Much discussion today over welfare reform and more opportunities for the public to get to know James Purnell, the most consistently impressive of Labour’s next generation. If the debate sometimes seems opaque, it is because it is taking place at four levels:

Practicability: Will the Government be able to deliver the support and pressure it promises in the White Paper? Already many of the short-listed contractors for the Flexible New Deal are saying that the targets DWP asked for initially are now unrealistic in new and worsening labour market conditions (I should declare an interest as a non-exec of one FND bidder). Setting ambitious targets but not matching them with the needed investment will lead at best to a box-ticking exercise and at worst to a sham.

Politics: New Labour strategists believe - and the polling seems to bear them out – that as more people suffer the effects of the downturn they will be even more intolerant of the ‘work-shy’ (I will post later on the interesting psychology of this phenomenon). The left critique is that the rhetoric of welfare reform adds to the view that poor and unemployed people (rather than ‘the system’) are to blame for their plight.

Social impact: Is it right for society that we expect everyone to work, including the parents of young children? Is it really better for kids that mums be forced to work long hours in thankless, low paid jobs while their kids are on pretty basic child care? The evidence of the wider benefits of working is pretty strong but this correlation may weaken if the only reason people are working is because they are being forced to.

Political philosophy: Is it justifiable to insist that the right to a basic income is conditional upon being prepared for work?  The well-off in society rely on the state to enshrine property rights and to maintain a system in which people can pass on privilege from one generation to the next. Is it unreasonable for those who do not want to work (either by inclination or as part of a deeper rejection of the consumer capitalist society) to claim a kind of economic conscientious objector status?

All complicated issues and worth disentangling in the debate. Not that this is likely in the world of sound bites and five minute interviews.

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