By John McAllion
During Scottish Labour’s recent Perth conference, a succession of speakers sought to convince us that a socially just Scotland could only happen inside a Labour Britain.
They promised a “race to the top” in which Scotland and the rest of the UK would fight together to build a people’s economy. They explained that social justice could only prevail over capitalist exploitation after the Coalition Government had been consigned to the dustbin of history.
All they required of us was to vote No in the referendum and to vote for Labour governments in both Scotland and the UK.
As the three-day conference ended with the singing of the Red Flag, delegates congratulated themselves on recapturing the social justice agenda and on re-positioning themselves to the left of the SNP.
Yet within a week of the conference’s end, Labour’s Westminster MPs had joined with the Tories and Liberal Democrats to pass by 520 votes to 22 a vicious cap on welfare spending across the UK.
Placing such an arbitrary cap on welfare spending is a direct attack on the poor. It ignores actual levels of need in a country already reeling from massive Coalition’s cuts. It makes no provision for changing circumstances like the current housing bubble in London and the South-East that many fear will cause another economic crisis. It locks unfairness into our welfare system and penalises those least able to look after themselves.
Save the Children warned that £3billion of cuts would now be targeted on the poor and predicted that the cap would drive another 345,000 children into poverty.
Labour’s “socially just” leadership responded that the cap was the “right thing to do”. They added that Labour had called for the cap first and that the Coalition Government was merely implementing Labour policy. Of course, not a whisper of this Labour policy had been heard during the three-day, conference in Perth.
Labour’s record on social justice leaves much to be desired. Their Scottish leader infamously railed against universal benefits and a “something for nothing Scotland”. At the Perth conference, the party issued a 64-page mini-manifesto intended to woo back disillusioned working class voters.
As the Labour-supporting Guardian newspaper pointed out, the document singularly failed to explain how Labour proposed to end popular but costly policies targeted by their Scottish leader in her speech, including free university tuition, free personal care for the elderly and free NHS prescriptions.
Labour’s Shadow Chancellor had already promised to implement the Coalition’s plans to slash spending on public services after 2015. He went further than the Coalition in committing to the means-testing of winter fuel payments for pensioners.
Labour had also endorsed freezes on public sector pay, compulsory work for the unemployed and even considered axing housing and unemployment benefits for under-25s. Their current Shadow works and Pensions Minister, Rachel Reeves MP, has promised to be tougher than the Tories on welfare.
Given Labour’s long march to the right on social justice, their decision to back the cap on welfare should surprise no one.
However, it is possibly the final straw that signifies the party’s ultimate break with the post-war settlement of a comprehensive welfare system providing social protection from the cradle to the grave.
Before 1945 the 18th century Poor Law principle had determined that applicants for public assistance must undergo a means test and demonstrate virtual destitution before qualifying for state aid. The inter-war British state recognised no responsibility for the welfare of its citizens.
After 1945, all of that changed.
The British welfare state was the most ambitious in post-war Europe. Health care, education, pensions, benefits were all largely state funded and heavily subsidised. In 1949, and despite the then severe strains on the country’s public finances, nearly 17 per cent of all public spending went on social security alone.
By its nature this welfare spending was socially redistributive but not socially divisive. The universal nature of the benefits meant that the middle and commercial classes also benefitted for the first time from state provided health care, education and insurance cover. Apart from a diminishing elite at the very top, everyone in post war Britain had a stake in the new social state.
It is that social state that is now being dismantled by a cross-party consensus on Westminster’s green and red benches.
Like the other Better Together parties, Labour too now draws a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. It also looks to means test the better off out of the social state. Like them, it scapegoats the unemployed and vulnerable for their welfare dependency while competing to keep the costs of welfare for “hardworking families” to an absolute minimum.
Once the party of the Welfare State, Labour now belongs to a Westminster consensus delivering the last rites to the social state they had once helped to create. There is nothing socially just about that.
Singing the Red Flag and talking about social justice cannot disguise that brutal reality.
Courtesy of The Scottish Socialist Voice