The debate over the future of welfare has intensified over the past year or so, with Labour being placed under increasing pressure to declare its vision, and the right of the party and especially the “Blue Labour” faction advocating a downsizing of the welfare state which would be tantamount to a new consensus, abandoning the settlement established by the Attlee government following the Second World War which established uniformity and more importantly equality of treatment when it comes to welfare.
In it’s simplest form, welfare exists to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in society. It combats the inherent weaknesses of capitalism by preventing members of our society from slipping into regressive cycles of poverty where generations would otherwise be presented with a very limited scope of opportunities and the inability to escape poverty. More than this though, it builds a sense of societal solidarity where we, as a group, recognise that life does not always go to plan and that we all need support at times in our lives due to no fault of our own. In these situations, people deserve to be treated with respect and helped to return to some sense of normality in order to get back on their feet. Significantly, this support does not exist for society to give itself a pat on the back, but due to the fact that at a fundamental level all humans are equal with a common set of rights which should not be subject to upbringing, life choices or wealth.
The basic goal of Labour is not to have a big state or to centralise government. Instead, it is simply to build a society in which every person has equal opportunities and a pleasant quality of life. For this reason, some in Labour have mooted the concept of contributory welfare. The idea is a rather adventurous reimagination of welfare which would see people ‘pay’ into the system. The more someone ‘pays’ in, the more they get out in times of need. Professor Heinz Wolff recently aired a similar idea for elderly care on Daily Politics. In both cases, ‘paying’ into the system does not refer to money, but rather to volunteer work helping your local community or elderly relatives. At the core of this concept is the desire to nurture a much more philanthropic, caring, and communally active and aware society.
However, while it is perfectly noble and valid to pursue such a vision for a caring society, doing so through welfare reforms would be both unfair and heavy-handed. Contributory welfare betrays the very essence of welfare which is to offset inequalities and to treat everyone at the same equitable level. In many ways, it’s an oxymoron as welfare based on contributions would essentially introduce inequalities into a system which is supposed to dampen inequalities through a sense of solidarity and equality of treatment. However much we would like to expand the philanthropic sector and build a more volunteer and community centric society, we cannot do so through treating some people better than others in their time of need.
Additionally, it is unclear how you would gauge the level of contribution to society, whether disabilities would be factored into the equation, as well as the time consumed by people who have jobs and thus have no time to volunteer, or the skills required to care for people with complex illnesses. These issues would make it likely that the realities of contributory welfare would spawn a greater bureaucracy than is currently the case. On top of this, large sections of the population would need to be exempted from the contributory system due to the fact that their lives simply permit them precious few opportunities to contribute as much as others.
Expanding the philanthropic sector is a key responsibility for any future government, but doing so by introducing overt inequalities into the welfare system would be a poor course of action and would ultimately prove to be a regressive, rather than progressive, measure, harming those in need while at the same time failing to achieve a real philanthropic society. Government-led schemes to organise, provide a framework for, and to encourage a more philanthropic society are needed, but they must be optional with those taking part doing so in an altruistic manner to help others rather than themselves. Any reform to welfare must not sacrifice equality or be heavy-handed.