From welfare to work plan is a return to old Labour's roots

James Purnell's reforms will show the real issue for Labour is not about personality, but policy, says GREG ROSEN

THE welfare reform white paper, to be published tomorrow by James Purnell, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, will be profoundly controversial in some quarters.

Purnell will be accused by Labour's left wing of betraying socialism. But in fact, his proposals will reflect a return to Labour's roots, reclaiming the party's agenda from pressure groups who have hijacked them.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Contrary to popular myth, the great figures who forged the Labour Party when the welfare state was created – Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden and Herbert Morrison – took a far more hard-line stance on requiring those on welfare benefits to seek work than is commonly understood now.

Purnell has declared that he believed "virtually everyone has a clear obligation to look for work, or prepare for work". In saying this he merely re-iterated the "rights and responsibilities" agenda that was at the heart of New Labour's pitch to the electorate in 1997.

Indeed, one of the famous Five Pledges by New Labour was for a windfall tax on the privatised utilities to fund a New Deal to help people off welfare and into work. New Labour had criticised Tory governments who let unemployment multiply into the several millions and then happily shoved the long-term unemployed on to incapacity benefit where they would not show up on the statistics as "unemployed". This was, said Labour, a fiddle on the taxpayer and a waste of human talent.

The welfare state was forged by the great Labour government of 1945-51. Herbert Morrison was at the heart of framing Labour's legislative approach under the then prime minister, Clement Attlee. Morrison explained the vision in speeches at the time: "We have swept away the Charity and Poor Law state and established the Social Security State, but the Social Security State cannot endure unless it is also a state of social responsibility." Morrison's point was that the new welfare state was a precious and delicate edifice which could only be sustained with the buy-in of the majority of voters who saw themselves as payers-in, as well as on occasion takers-out.

This was as much true for working class as for middle-class voters. In a famous speech to Labour's annual conference, Morrison attacked what he called the "drones"; "useless mouths", and "people engaged in activities which are a hindrance on our national effort or (are] defiantly antisocial. We have no hands or brains to waste, and no resources to fritter away on those who don't contribute to our national effort. Let us point the figure of public scorn at those who make themselves comfortable at the expense of the community."

It was a little like Tony Blair's famous "forces of Conservatism" speech, which earned Blair more than several brickbats from the left wing at Labour conference in 1999, Morrison's speech was aimed at more than one target: at the aristocrats who consumed but did not produce, and those, including the spivs and black-marketers of that era, who might seek to exploit the welfare state without wanting to give back. Morrison knew the welfare state and Ernest Bevin's 1944 pledge to maintain full employment were part of the same virtuous cycle – and those in the community who wanted benefit but did not want to work undermined the potential generosity of the system for those in genuine need.

Morrison knew for aspirational working-class voters (those by and for whom the Labour Party was founded in 1900), the belief that hard work and playing by the rules should pay off was strongly held. It still is today.

In 1997, aspirational working-class families, members of trade unions such as Amicus, for example, saw New Labour as "their" party, as they had seen Labour as being for many decades until the madness of the 1980s. Purnell clearly understands that. Though he will be criticised by Labour's left wing, through his plan for welfare reform, he will eclipse David Miliband as the Blairite heir- apparent when next there is a vacancy for Labour leader. It will also show the real issue for Labour is not about personality, whether Brown versus Cameron or Brown versus anyone, but about policy, namely effective policy to achieve what Labour has always promised to do and hasn't done fully (though it has done a better job than the Conservatives managed) – to get everyone who can work off welfare and into work.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Keir Hardie, in his maiden speech to parliament in 1893, appealed for help for the unemployed, distinguishing between what he called "loafers" and what he called "bona fide working men" (he would now of course have added working women).

What Hardie condemned was the "moral degradation of enforced idleness" as caused by the massive cyclical unemployment inherent in unfettered capitalism. What Hardie demanded were measures to give opportunities for all to work, and support for those who could not. He did not favour state support, paid for by other workers, for those who could work but did not wish to. Hardie would have been as appalled by the apparent ability of Karen Matthews and her ilk to milk the system as so many are today. But he would have been reassured by James Purnell.

But before the London commentariat get over-excited that this marks some sort of Purnell leadership bid, (which clearly it does not), it is worth noting that it is ironically under Brown's premiership, rather than Blair's, that Purnell has been able to take this forward (though to their credit both David Blunkett and John Hutton were thinking in this direction in their all-too-brief spells in what is now Purnell's ministerial hot seat). What it shows is that if ministers have the ability and talent to forge a clear vision for what needs to be done to tackle a vital issue, Brown will back it. It shows that Labour in government has the ability to renew and to address issues that the public want tackled.

Labour's critics will ask why, when the challenges and issues were apparent in 1997, it has taken so long to address them. Perhaps the answer is that a Brown-led government is more effective at confronting the challenges facing Britain than some of Brown's Blairite critics predicted.

Related topics: