Last week, I applied a legitimacy frame to welfare. Today, Ed Miliband will give a speech in which he outlines how he would go about re-constructing a legitimate welfare state. His short-term political objective is to re-establish Labour's credibility. But the bigger ambition is to generate firmer support for the welfare system as a whole.
There are four elements to this:
i) A cap on 'structural welfare' in any three year period. This is the element of the welfare budget which is not susceptible to the economic cycle. It awaits technical definition.
ii) A focus on work as a route out of poverty - even for those of young children. Wages are an element of this. It also includes a 'gold service' of welfare to work - especially for those who have contributed more over a period of time.
iii) An emphasis on contribution as one principle within the welfare system. This is a signal as much as anything else - eg a slightly enhanced Job Seekers' Allowance for those who have paid more into the system. In monetary terms, this may be fairly trivial but it's the principle that is being asserted.
iv) A continued emphasis on reducing child poverty. Labour will not abandon any commitments in this regard.
Each of the individual elements are intriguing in their own right - the cap is a big move to establish credibility, the work commitment is an attempt to not leave many languishing between stingy welfare and work, contribution is about re-aligning the system with values, and the child poverty target remaining is about infusing this package with a social democratic value-set.
As an entire package, it is even more intriguing. It means a future Labour Government would have to focus on ends as well as means. The last Labour Government - in prosperous times - had a child poverty end but the means were largely about increasing tax transfers. By agreeing to a cap, this means that method is effectively off the table. This sets a public policy challenge - innovate or those who you wish to morally protect will suffer. Labour has put a gun to its own head.
That will help Labour make the political sell. However, the wider question of welfare legitimacy is a much bigger one. Each of the main parties is willing to signal intent, evolve measures, desperately try to keep a lid on expenditure. None is yet willing to ask the fundamental question: what sort of welfare state do the majority of people want and need? Sure there are surveys about values and principles but what, in practical terms, do individuals and families require in the modern working age? What are they willing to pay in and how (eg taxation or insurance)?
My sense is that welfare is now effectively privatised for many if not most - people fund themselves through credit cards, subsidisation from their partners, and small pots of savings and mortgage insurance. If this is the case then the welfare state, other than in the early years, in ill health or disability, and old age may remain fairly marginal. Re-establishing contribution may re-align this marginal system with values but little more.
Until these more fundamental questions are answered, politicians will continue to grapple with the beast. It may be that people want more support on housing, childcare, job and skills support. So the route back to legitimacy might be good quality services and personal advice and support rather than through enhanced cash benefits. It would be useful to see this actually reserached in depth.
As a society we don't know the answer because we are too focused on the politics. Miliband and Labour seem to be engaging in this debate in a more 'with the grain' fashion. For all political parties there is a wider challenge: how should welfare work in this century as opposed to the middle of the last?
Anthony Painter is Director, Independent review of the Police Federation. His twitter feed is @anthonypainter.