My travel reading this week has been the latest Fabian Society publication The Solidarity Society by Tim Horton and James Gregory. This is the final report of a project to commemorate the centenary of Beatrice Webb’s famous 1909 Minority Report of the Royal commission on the Poor Law. The central thesis of the report is by applying Webb’s values to contemporary Britain we can inspire a radical vision to fight poverty. That vision should be one based on equal citizenship.
The report gives us a detailed analysis of current welfare strategies to show how much decisions about universalism and targeting matter. The best example is the universal NHS that remains popular with all socio-economic groups. In contrast social housing has been increasingly targeted on the needy and equally important, spatially segregated from the rest of society. As a consequence is less popular.
This highlights the importance of public support for welfare funding. It has to chime with the public’s perception of what’s fair and harness our collective and cooperative instincts. Universalism and reciprocity is the way to achieve this. The report then sets out a range of specific measures that constitute a new welfare contract, shifting away from simply responding to need and back towards reciprocity where people earn entitlement through participation in society.
There is a net cost in the approach that the authors address through reform of the National Insurance system. Many will of course argue that given the state of public finances this is not the time. The ONS have published figures today that shows’ public borrowing has reached 61.7% of GDP. It is worth reminding ourselves that that in 1945 we had a national debt of over 200% of GDP and yet still created the NHS and implemented Beveridge.
So why does all this matter? It matters because Cameron’s Tories have a clear strategy to divide ‘the needy’ from the majority of society. Welfare and public services are to be a safety net while the majority purchase services from the private sector. There is a close alliance between this strategy and the burgeoning number of right wing groups promoting bogus research in support of this approach.
I was pleased to see that Harriet Harman will today pledge that inequality will be a clear dividing line between Labour and the Tories. This Fabian report gives some pointers as to how we could tackle poverty and inequality with a settlement that could permanently command public support.