Welfare reconstruction
Welfare reconstruction

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Welfare reconstruction

1 New Labour's approach welfare reconstruction

This audio file, recorded in 1999, explores questions about New Labour's approach to welfare reconstruction. The discussion is lead by John Clarke with contributions from Ruth Lister and Sharon Gerwitz and contains extracts of Tony Blair's speeches.

Participants in the audio programme were:

  • John Clarke Professor of Social Policy at The Open University;

  • Ruth Lister Professor of Social Policy, Loughborough University;

  • Sharon Gerwitz Social Sciences lecturer at The Open University.

Activity 1

Listen to the audio file. You may find it helpful to listen to the recording a second time and take notes that help define the main discussion about welfare reconstruction.

Developing reading skills part 1 (6 minutes 3 MB)

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John Clarke
On this programme we are going to explore questions about New Labour’s approach to welfare reconstruction. This is linked to Book Four’s examination of the unsettling and remaking of the old Welfare State by the New Right. Book Four was produced in 1997, just as the Labour Government, headed by Tony Blair, was elected. So this programme takes the discussion of welfare reconstruction forward from then.
I am joined by Ruth Lister, Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University, and Sharon Gewirtz, another member of the D218 Course Team, to talk about these issues.
Lets start though with how the Labour Government itself understands what's new about New Labour. They have used ideas of a Third Way a lot.
Tony Blair
“The old Left thought the argument was just more spending on regulation. The Right Wing say to you sink or swim in the marketplace. We say there is a role for Government. Market forces are not a new god. But the role of Government has changed. Today it is to give people the education, the skills, the technical know-how to let their enterprise and talent flourish in this new marketplace. This is the third way, not old Left or new Right, but a new centre, and centre Left agenda for to-day. And we understand too, that economic stability is the prerequisite for radicalism in social policy rather than an alternative to it. That is why all over Europe, it is parties of the centre and centre Left that are sorting out the mess in their public finances and being the parties of fiscal and economic prudence. And we should celebrate that as parties of the centre and centre Left. [APPLAUSE] Closely combined with this must be the reform of the Welfare State.”
John
So, Ruth, if we can start with you. What are we to make of this idea of a Third Way?
Ruth Lister
I think the critical point of the Third Way is to distance New Labour from so-called Old Labour and the Old Left. So the Third Way it embraces markets; it embraces enterprise; it rejects the old tax and spend stance; it sees the State as an enabler rather than a provider. However, it isn't simply taking on neo-Liberal approaches and ideologies of the Thatcher Government. It is also trying to distance itself from the new Right. And it does still talk the language of social justice; of community; it's concern to eradicate child poverty; attack social exclusion. But even in doing this, it is still not the Labour Party of old. So for me this is summed up in what I’ve suggested we can call a shift from an equality agenda, to one which embraces responsibilities, inclusion and opportunity. And it's equality of opportunity rather than greater equality which is key I think to understanding what New Labour is about and responsibilities are more important really than rights, or any rights that you have are contingent on responsibilities.
John
Can you say a little more about that movement from rights to responsibilities?
Ruth
I think one of the most consistent themes of Tony Blair’s speech since becoming Leader of the Labour Party, has been to re-orient the Party’s thinking about citizenship. And so he has constantly said that rights are dependent on responsibilities. It’s now in the Labour Party’s own Constitution, and it's very much about individual responsibilities, collective responsibilities. But I think there is more emphasis on the individual responsibility. The responsibility to make the best of your own position, to educate yourself, to train yourself to take paid work. Also responsibilities towards your family and so forth. And that kind of links in, I think, with discourses of community family.
John
In terms of what Book Four talks about for settlement, it seems to me that what you have said about the way it draws lines around Old Labour and New Right, isn't quite as even-handed as that. That in a sense there is an issue about whether that really clear line is to say, we cannot go back to Old Labour. Then there is an issue about saying our relationship to the legacy of the New Right is a more ambiguous one; that the individualism, the stress on the family, the stress on enterprise, the stress on responsibility, sounds rather more associated with those Conservative Governments of 1980’s and 1990’s. Would that be right?
Ruth
Yes. I certainly don’t think it's equidistant. I mean there is this…to try and present it as such, and I think…I mean different exponents of the Third Way kind of stand I think at different places in the political spectrum. So for instance Tony Giddings might be a bit more kind of traditional – well not traditional, but if you are thinking in traditional Left Right terms, which is of course exactly what they don’t want you to do, then he might be a bit more Left than perhaps the way Tony Blair presents the Third Way. Although I think Blair himself in his Fabian pamphlet was at pains to locate it in a democratic socialist rather than a neo-Liberal tradition. Nevertheless, I think it does draw in many ways more heavily on that neo-Liberal settlement if you like, particularly I think on the economic front. But it isn't consistent, because just when you think oh yes, it's just a continuation of what went before, then they do something which surprises you like Tony Blair’s pledge to eradicate child poverty. I mean we would not have had that from the previous Government. I don't think one should over simplify it.
John
And the Third Way in that sense remains a bit of unfinished business.
Ruth
I think the Third Way is much clearer in terms of what it is not, rather than what it is. And I think it is something that is still to be fought for.
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Developing reading skills part 2 (11 minutes 5 MB)

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John
Sharon, can I turn to you now? Is there anything that you would want to add to that idea about the Third Way?
Sharon Gewirtz
Well I think first of all I would want to say that I agree with everything that Ruth says and I think she has really captured the essence of Third Way politics beautifully. And also the different takes on the Third Way. But there is perhaps one thing I would want to add which is one of the ways in which I think the Third Way does very much represent a continuation of New Right politics which is in relation to the State’s role in the provision of welfare. And the New Right, we often heard talk about there being a move towards a mixed economy of welfare. Now as we all know there has always been a mixed economy of welfare, even under the Beveridge Welfare State you had the situation where, although the dominant image was of the State providing welfare, a lot of welfare was also provided by other sectors, particularly in the home, which often went unrecognised. And also there was a small private sector. But under the New Right you got this shift towards a greater role for the private sector and the provision of welfare. And my feeling is that within Third Way politics that shift is being intensified so although it's being couched in the language of partnership for the private sector, in a way that seems to me to be another way of constructing privatisation so that we are carrying on getting a shift in the balance of the mixed economy towards a greater role for the private sector through such developments as PFI and other public, private partnerships.
John
I think that’s very helpful particularly in the context of Book Four’s concern with the settlements around welfare, particularly for questions about the welfare mix and that strand of continuity. Let’s look a little more closely about how New Labour has approached questions of welfare reform.
Tony Blair
“Our new society that we want to create will have the same values as it ever did, fighting poverty and unemployment, securing justice and opportunity. It should be a compassionate society. It must be a compassionate society. But it is compassion with a hard edge because a strong society can't be built, not in the real world, on soft choices. It means fundamental reform of our Welfare State, of the very deal between citizen and society. It means getting money out of social failure and breakdown into schools, into hospitals, where we want to see it. This new Welfare State must encourage work, not dependency. We are giving young people and the long-term unemployed the opportunity - a £3.5 billion pound investment programme. We are adding today the option of selfemployment as part of the new deal. But I think it right and fair that they have to take one of the options on offer. We want single mothers, with school-age children, at least to visit a job centre, not just stay at home waiting for the benefit cheque every week until the children are sixteen. We need a modern welfare that means a better balance between public and private money. There’s no other way to do it. We need to invest more as a country in savings and pensions. We all know that. We all agree with it. But Government's role, from now on, is going to be to organise provision, like the new Stakeholder pensions, not funded all through ever higher taxes. And our number one priority is to get help to the poorest pensioners first. [APPLAUSE] Housing benefit, in some areas, is virtually designed for fraud. It's true. It has to change. So we can't be that beacon to the world in the Year 2005, with a Welfare State built for the very different world of 1945.”
John
So Ruth, what would you draw out as the central thread of New Labour’s approach to welfare reform?
Ruth
Well I think work, not dependency, sums it up. They are constantly saying New Labour is reforming welfare around the work ethic and it's the central thread of their welfare reforms is getting people into paid work. And this is counter-posed to socalled welfare dependency. They’ve taken on really the New Right notion of a dependency culture, although we do not have research evidence to support the view that there is such a thing. And paid work is the best form of welfare they say. And the theme is work for those who can, security for those who cannot. However, I think it's fair to say that so far a lot more energy has gone into the work for those ‘who can’ side with the equation, not necessarily in providing work but in making workless people more employable and encouraging them to take the work opportunities available. More energy has gone into that than into the security for those ‘who cannot’ work.
John
How do they understand that phrase “those who cannot work”? What do they mean by that?
Ruth
Well so far when we talk about work, I think we have to make clear we are talking about paid work, and I think that is one of the key issues, and one of the criticisms that other forms of work such as ‘care’ work is not seen as work to be rewarded in the same way. Nevertheless it is accepted that say lone parents aren’t required to take paid work. They will in future be required to go for an interview but they are still in a sense allowed to spend time at home caring for their children. Those who cannot work I think are primarily seen as those who are too old to work, i.e. pensioners; those who are so severely disabled that they cannot be expected to work – but there is a new deal for disabled people so it's not sort of writing off all disabled people as not expected to work – and children. And those are the three groups for whom in fact there have been some improvements in benefits. But those in a sense have been provided, almost against the ideology because they are very resistant to any idea about better benefits. Better benefits means welfare dependency. That’s not what New Labour is about.
John
That’s a very strong theme. Sharon, if this approach is about enabling people to enter paid work, how does New Labour understand the role of Government in that process?
Sharon
Well I think this concept of the enabling State is quite important with the current Government. What it means is that there’s no longer a commitment to the State having a role to actually create jobs through public works or macro-economic policies aimed at encouraging full employment. There is a shift towards the State being an investor in human capital. So the idea is that the State provides the opportunities for people to take the job that is supposed to be available by equipping them with the skills and the training. And this is done both through education polices and the Welfare-to-Work scheme. But again, that leaves the question what about those who don’t take advantage of the so-called opportunities? What happens to them under all of this?
John
I mean it does seem to me that in that stress on people being responsible for their own lives, for their own well-being, for their own welfare, and that then in the context of the State enabling them to do it, there is an issue about how we view people who fail to take advantage of those responsibilities. I mean is there a degree of moral pressure in the New Labour approach to this? Ruth?
Ruth
Yeah, there’s moral pressure and there’s more than that. I mean the New Deal for young people right from the outset, made very clear that the Government is providing new opportunities, therefore they are to take up and exercise these responsibilities, and there is no fifth option, i.e. young people are not to stay at home, stay in bed. They will lose their benefit. And gradually they are tightening up the rules around benefit receipt, particularly for young people. And the penalties associated with not taking up responsibilities are becoming more draconian. So it's not just moral pressure, it's the full force of the State in a way.
John
So we may in fact end up with a situation in which issues about responsibility and obligation are enforced perhaps more strongly than New Right Governments ever envisaged doing.
Ruth
Yes that’s true although I suspect had the New Right Government come back into power they would have been going perhaps even further down that road.
Sharon
Can I just add one thing here which is I think that it's important to realise that this emphasis on responsibility isn't just in relation to work but it's in relation to all other sectors of welfare. So for instance in health, we are all being encouraged to be healthier citizens and to take responsibility for our own health; to have healthier lifestyles, healthier diets. In education parents are being almost coerced into taking responsibility for their children’s learning through signing home school contracts; through the Government saying exactly how many hours of homework children have to do and parents having to take responsibility to ensure that children do that. And in the sphere of crime as well with Neighbourhood Watch schemes, the idea that it is our responsibility to protect ourselves from being victims of crime.
John
So as the State moves back into enforcing us being responsible and meeting our obligations, we become more responsible, more active citizens, in theory at least, across the whole range of welfare activities. I mean that’s clearly one of the big strands but there is also surely a big stress on organisational reform in relation to the Welfare State with ideas about modernising public services and welfare systems to fit new challenges. What would you pull out as the central themes there, Ruth?
Ruth
I think one of the interesting constructs in the Welfare Reform Green Paper was the notion of the sceptical, demanding citizen consumer. But I think in this the consumer is stronger than the citizen. And it is I think again following the Major Government, a kind of consumerist approach to users of the Welfare State. I think that the whole listening to users is stronger in the service area. It is still not applied at all really to the benefits side. I think that reflects this notion that if you are on benefit you don’t kind of deserve in the same way that service users do to have some kind of say in how things are managed.
I think the other big theme, and this is particularly on the social security welfare side, is this individualised approach: to treat people as individuals, to have personal advisors who will tell them what's available. It very much I think comes from the United States where they have taken the same approach in their Welfare-to-Work schemes and this is seen as the kind of… the modern approach to provision of benefits.
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Developing reading skills part 3 (9 minutes 4.5 MB)

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John
Sharon, is there anything you would want to add to that about… I mean questions about organisation, structure and form?
Sharon
Yes. I think there is one other important strand in the, if you like, new organisational settlement which is the continued and perhaps enhanced, if that’s the right word, emphasis on managerialism that we had under New Right Governments. But I think that there is even more managerialisation now than there was before. What I am talking about here is the idea of importing business-like practices, practices which we normally associate with commerce and industry, into the public sector. So I’m talking about the increase for instance in target-setting which we are seeing everywhere now, and that operates at every level of the welfare system. For instance in the Education System you have the Minister for Education having his own targets for the number of fourteen year olds who reach the so-called accepted standard in Maths and English. You have local Education Authorities having their own targets; you have schools having their targets, teachers having their targets, and even individual five-year-old students, children, having their own targets. So I mean this is one very important aspect of the organisational settlement which I think really permeates through into every ones experience of welfare. Another aspect of that is performance related pay and the attempt to adopt those kinds of performance related pay mechanisms, which we normally associate with the private sector, into the public sector. And what all of these things have is an emphasis on measuring on outcome rather than a concern about the processes of service delivery.
John
I think that’s interesting especially I mean in the context of Book Four’s explanation of managerialism. I mean that concern with targets and performance setting and performance evaluation, and review and then performance related pay, seems to me to continue under that language of the pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness in public services. And I mean it seems to me that one of the sort of strong threads in the New Labour language about public services is an idea about pragmatism: that actually what we are interested in is the best way to get efficient public services rather than complicated discussions about either policies or about processes. But targets are a way of apparently escaping from some of those complicated, political choices.
Let’s turn to the settlement that we’ve not discussed so far which is the social settlement. What's the New Labour view of social life? What is it that supports and is going to be supported by New Labour’s social policies?
Tony Blair
“We need change. We can have the education revolution, the health revolution, the welfare revolution but it means hard choices. And it means modernisation. And we need to bring a change too in the way that we treat each other as citizens of our society. A decent society is not actually based on rights; it's based on duty. Our duty to each other, to all should be given opportunity, from all responsibility demanded. The duty to show respect and tolerance to others. The duty to protect others. And we cannot say we want a strong, secure society when we ignore its very foundation – family life. This is not about preaching to individuals about their private lives. It is addressing a huge social problem. Attitudes have changed. The world’s changed. But I’m a modern man leading a modern country, and I tell you this is a modern crisis.”
John
So what are we to make of New Labour’s view of society? There is clearly some address to questions about change and social modernisation but there’s also some very traditional components with that emphasis on the family, and discipline, and duty. Ruth?
Ruth
I think the deposition on the family epitomises the tensions really and the White Paper they brought out was very interesting. I mean it talked about “families” not “The Family” in the title, which was good. But central to it was this tension about marriage because they realised that they were walking a very thin tight rope between traditionalism, and they wanted to say yes, two parent families are best, but at the same time they didn’t want to be critical of lone-parent families. So they were also saying you know doing a very good job. And this kind of tension runs through it. But at the end of the day, although they said how important marriage was, the policies they came up with to support it were laughable really. And they recognise change, particularly change in the position of women. This isn't about putting women back into the home at all. In fact it's really the opposite, because in the scheme that Nancy Frazer developed, what they are pursuing is what she called the universal breadwinner model – i.e. you know, women you can be breadwinners as well. Everyone should be a breadwinner. And that can come into tension with what Sharon was saying about, you know, the responsibilities on families to, you know, make sure that their children do well at school, meet the contracts, don’t get into trouble. And of course this takes time. So this can kind of cause I think problems for particularly mothers who are still expected to be doing this and this is implicit. But that’s probably what's all going to happen.
The other area I think where there is a recognition of change but it's not central I think to the Third Way, it's more of an add on, is in terms of changes in the demands of say disabled people, older people, who are demanding Civil Rights, not simply to be the sort of passive recipients of services. And changes in terms of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. But it isn't central to Third Way thinking. It always feels like it's an add-on and it's rhetorical, but there isn't yet an enormous amount of substance behind it.
John
So there are sets of tensions around the social settlement, some of which of course are continuous from earlier periods. But that question about whether the commitment to work is also in tension with changed gender roles in the family and the other responsibilities that might be around seems to me to be I mean one of the sort of unresolved problems about the social settlement. But also I think I mean that question about whether Britain is understood as a multi-ethnic or a multi-cultural society in any deep sense seems to me to be extremely important.
So Sharon, are there tensions also around the questions about Britain as a multi-ethnic, or a multi-cultural society in New Labour's view?
Sharon
It's perhaps helpful to take a concrete example of that. I want to use the example of education again because I think these kinds of tensions are perhaps most obvious in education. But in education, particularly following the McPherson Enquiry Report, which explicitly said that schools ought to attend to antiracist education, which of course had been marginalized in recent years under New Right Governments. If schools are going to take that seriously they are going to find problems because of the other elements of Third Way Policies, which of the competitive elements, the elements to do with league tables, the elements to do with target setting, all of which encourage schools to channel their energies into results and outcomes. Now those kinds of policies have other kinds of affects in schools as well. They encourage schools, because they are concerned about outcomes, to set their students by ability because that seems to be the most effective and efficient way to reach targets. Now we all know from years of research into setting practices in schools that they discriminate against black and some groups of Asian students in particular, and also white, working class students because of the stereotyping in putting students into sets. So as a consequence of those policies those students are likely to be disadvantaged. Yet at the same time they are supposed to be encouraging anti-racist practices. In practice that tension can't be sustained.
John
I think that’s very helpful because it connects the general set of tensions about how the social is thought about in New Labour to a very specific way in which they might play out in one policy area. And I think throughout Book Four we’ve seen that both the general and the particular issues about social policy have that sort of interconnection.
I just want to pull this to a close with a view about Book Four ends I think, with a view that the social settlement – this was in 1997 – was unresolved. It seems to me that what we have talked about New Labour suggests that there are still aspects of unfinished tensions that run throughout it's view of the relationship between Welfare, the State, and the people and that we will see being played out both in the general politics of Welfare and in the specific policy areas. Thank you both very much.
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