After the latest Universal Credit disaster, Labour must win the argument on welfare
It’s difficult to describe hunger caused by an admin error. Little says more about the casual brutality of Britain’s ripped safety net than people being left with empty cupboards because someone fed the wrong data in. I became used to such admin errors some time ago; Labour in power was hardly perfect on poor relief (it cut support for single parents like mine within a year of coming to office).
But those errors could usually be fixed: a few heated phone calls, several hours queuing in a grey office, a trudge to another building, and something, if meagre, would materialise. This time we are talking about people being abandoned for six weeks. For reasons from bad planning to political misjudgement to blind indifference, the Universal Credit rollout has been an unmitigated disaster throughout. These reasons are visible in Theresa May’s answerless answer to Andrew Marr’s recent question after even Conservatives begged her to change tack: “how are people going to eat?”
Treasury secretary David Gauke now insists cash payments will be offered to claimants — but given the lastminute nature of this, and the government’s previous record (the Concentrix affair for example) the chances of huge numbers slipping through the cracks remain high, and the scheme risks driving people into debt.
Labour seized on the scandal, marking a shift from 2015 where spokespeople promised to be tougher than the Conservatives on benefits. That shift began with Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to vote for the Welfare Bill. But taking the right side is no longer enough, and the six-week death trap hanging over claimants’ heads shows the importance of Labour deepening the argument on welfare.
Welfare cannot be divorced from work. The longest sustained fall in living standards since records began, record-breaking in work poverty, and the rise of zero hour contracts are more than just a failure of planning. They mark fundamental changes in the relationship between worker and owner; changes that started in low-paid jobs and now are affecting whitecollar workers. We are all increasingly expected to be available for work at a moment’s notice, dismissable at a moment’s notice, and our pay packet restrained below the cost of rent, transport and other necessities.
Universal Credit became necessary partly to prepare for a workforce shifting in and out of jobs or in working poverty due to underemployment. The Conservatives seem happy to subsidise race-to-the-bottom bosses with dole cheques but on the condition that claimants feel no sense of entitlement to the pot their NI contributions pay into. This accounts for their iron hand of discipline via crippling sanctions, workfare schemes, justified by moralising about scroungers.
Meanwhile access to other basics via the welfare state is restricted; the bedroom tax clears people out of housing deemed too good for them (this is important enough for the government to sue over panic rooms or beds for disabled children), the housing benefit cap removes people from areas deemed too good for them, and local services such as nurseries or lunch clubs face the axe. The welfare state is being reconfigured, away from a safety net and towards a paternalistic pocket money system to smooth over changes in how we work. It’s not about decreasing dependency — in fact, dependency may well rise.
It is both possible and necessary to imagine something different. Theresa May herself acknowledged over the weekend that Labour has changed the political consensus. Attitudes towards austerity are growing more negative and attitudes towards welfare claimants are softening. The searing moral outrage of critiques like Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” took us some of the way. But to win the argument we need more: a 21st Century vision of what welfare is and who it serves.
A Corbyn-led Labour government would need to urgently address the catastrophic collapse of local services, the return of malnutrition and extreme poverty, and also long-term changes such as automation. A progressive reimagining of Universal Credit, which fits with the principle of universality Labour is advocating for on tuition fees, could form the basis of a system able to respond to complex longterm needs and provide a cushion for those who need different working arrangements. An approach to provision involving consulting locally, and integrating welfare with other forms of economic planning, could provide a responsive modern system that commands popular support.
The end goal here is not simply more money or security. It’s about working class independence. In the world’s sixth richest economy, in a period where new technology is opening the horizons of possibility, there is no reason we cannot ask for either secure or flexible work on our terms. There is no reason not to ask for a cradle-to-grave support network that ensures access to education, jobs, and housing and cares for us — not disciplines and patronises — in difficult times. Where no one faces six weeks of hunger due to admin error.
Conservatives would call this a nanny state that stymies aspiration. It’s the opposite; it’s a solid bedrock on which we can all build our own paths.