UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Social Security and Labour: More than a Missed Opportunity

Ed Miliband’s speech in Newham on the subject of social security was an excellent example of the failure of the Labour front bench to think beyond the Tory terms of debate. It features the workshy, “hard working families”, compulsory work for the unemployed and better testing for the disabled.
   The Labour Leader displayed all the understanding of the working of the social security system that is commonly found in the average episode of the Jeremy Kyle show. There is a simple rule that states that every time Frank Field MP praises a change in the social security system check the smell on the air. And in this case something stinks.

Going back to Beveridge, it was clearly understood that any system should be paid for by everyone and that everyone should get something out. This week has seen the Labour front bench clearly state that they seek an end to the universality of the system. This fundamental principle has now been consigned to the dust bin. The social security system will be a system for the poor and a poor system, a view originally expressed by Prof Richard Titmuss, notable campaigner for social justice.

Miliband continues the idle chat about ending child poverty, but his speech is notable for the lack of any focus on the causes of inequality, or of tackling the tax system that allows the rich to get richer. He focuses on the “idle unemployed” but his solution is compulsory employment in a minimum wage job paid for by the taxpayer. Companies get free labour and probably the fruits of that labour, presumably adding to the profits that they then avoid or evade paying any tax on, but the unemployed do not get a real job paid at the rate for the job. He talks even of firms sharing the benefits from lower tax credits and benefits where the living wage is paid; yet more subsidies for corporate Britain.

The current tests for the disabled are condemned as “not fit for purpose”, but there is nothing on the record that Atos will in any way have their contract terminated or that the service will be returned to the public sector. But there will be “better” tests. Again, it is easy to talk about bad companies that exploit zero hours contracts, or fail to pay the minimum wage, and to say that the next government will legislate against them, but the best protection for any worker is in a trade union that can take effective action in the workplace. Will the legislation include a trade union freedom bill?

There is general agreement that the money spent on housing benefit to private landlords is a complete waste of money, lining only their pockets while the supply of housing continues to be disastrously low. There is also agreement that the only real way of tackling the problem is to introduce rent controls.

Well, there is almost general agreement. The Labour solution is that local authorities should “negotiate” lower rents in their areas, a solution almost as doomed as the Tory bedroom tax. (That idea was based on the notion that offering lower benefit would encourage rents to come down. It hasn’t happened, and households are being evicted).

No doubt rent controls won’t play well in the Daily Mail or Evening Standard, and too much of this speech and proposed policy seems designed to play to that audience.

Here’s a thought that a decent policy could have started from. Where there are well paid, secure jobs unemployed people will apply for them, thus cutting the numbers on unemployment benefit and on tax credits and increasing contributions to the tax system.

Labour policy on social security has an undercurrent of dealing with a nasty underclass that it does not understand. That a party that should be based on social justice is so far away from it is not a miscalculation. It is a tragedy.