There was a lot that was horrible about the emergency budget. The pay of all public sector employees on 21k a year or more wasa frozen for two years. With prices expected to rise by over 7.3 per cent over the next biennium, this represents an enormous real terms pay cut – equivalent to taking £1500 off a worker earning 21k. Meanwhile, pensioners are, it seems, the new deserving poor. While the unemployed face cuts in housing benefit, Osbourne has declared his budget “fair” because pensioners – many of whom have millions of pounds worth of assets – will all get a boost. Don’t get me wrong, I do support decent state pensions. But what I absolutely oppose is this moral hierarchy of the less well off. In an economy in which jobseekers outnumber jobs by 5 to 1 – I object to the way in which benefit claimants are constantly portrayed as the authors of their own misfortune in contrast to those who merely suffer from old age.
This said, the reduction of tax credits to higher earners in the budget, and possible moves away from universal benefits are not necessarily a bad thing, despite the left’s longstanding attachment to universal benefits. Indeed the left has long been differentiated from liberals by its recognition -in other areas – that treating everybody equally does not promote equality in a society that is unequal to begin with.
The reality is that the labour movements attachment to universal benefits has more to do with specific features of 20th century history than anything else. Typically the birth of the modern welfare state is understood in terms of the pressure to build “a land fit for heroes” following the second world war. Yet what is often underestimated is the extent to which welfarist politics in post war Britain were shaped by the memory of the 1930s. It was the dark shadow of interwar Britain that animated those who sought to build a full employment economy in which the basic needs of all were met. And one of the most hated aspects of 1930s life had been the use of the means test. Destitute families had been denied help on the flimsiets pretexts. But equally awful had been the intrusion into private family life that the means test had represented. Means test inspectors were empowered to enter homes and to pry hmiliatingly in weekly budgets and family circumstances. As one sorce puts it, the means test became a “national folk myth”.
It is then no surprise that the post war welfare state was built on universalist principles, and that the attachment of the left and th labour movement to htose principles remained strong. Yet today a host of options exist for targetting benefits and social welfare without such intrusion. I really really really hate the man, but I must admit that Frank Field’s proposal to tax child benefit strikes me as a good idea. Such a move would attenuate the amount recieved by the better off without necessitating a whole new body of inspectors and eligibility tests. The challenge for the left is to ensure that those benefits targetted at the less well off are sufficient to make a real difference to their lives.
To contact Reuben email firstname.lastname@example.org