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Welfare • Conservatives • Public Opinion

Standing up to welfare state conservatism

Steve Van Riel - 07 February 2013

Taking a defensive stance on welfare is attractive; but the left will not regain the mantle of economic competence with evasive political moves

The cover of Patrick Diamond and Guy Lodge’s new Policy Network paper shows a group of people marching against cuts. The word “defend” stands out on the placards. The question the paper asks is, is this passion to protect public services all good news for progressives?

Across the UK, there are hundreds of such campaigns focussed on keeping open a local hospital, fire station, police station or library. Diamond and Lodge commissioned YouGov to poll in France, Denmark and the UK and they find “entrenched support for the ‘traditional’ welfare state” in all three countries. Their findings suggests that, across Western Europe, even substantial numbers of right-leaning voters want to spend more on either the health service or pensions. Fear of this sentiment forced David Cameron, before the last election, to pledge that the NHS would be protected from spending cuts and that free TV licences, bus passes and winter fuel payments would be protected for all pensioners.

There is a temptation for someone on the centre left to leave it there: people, from all classes, are passionately protecting the welfare state our predecessors built. For years, we have been trying to get people excited about our ideas for a better future and often only received a lukewarm response. People are almost always more passionate in defence of what they already have and, for the first time in a while, we can be part of that. We would also be allowed to partake in some of the joys of conservatism: scoffing at ill-thought through Whitehall plans, defending something close to home and claiming the endorsement of all our heroes from past history.

But conservatism isn’t much of a guide for policy, as Diamond and Lodge recognise. The last Labour Government spent roughly the same amount on the Sure Start childcare programme each year as it did on the annual £200 “winter fuel payment” to all pensioners. They argue that the welfare state should put a far greater priority on “social investment” spending on policies like childcare or help for people to find work. Plans to reconfigure a public service regularly spark protest but can deliver significant improvements: for example following the reorganisation of London’s stroke services into just eight hyper acute units, the London NHS can now claim that Londoners stand a 20 per cent better chance of surviving a stroke than patients from elsewhere in England.

With shrinking budgets, Diamond and Lodge suggest that an “apparent conflict has emerged between the objective of securing support for the traditional welfare state” and the desire for Nordic-style “social investment”. They discuss one escape route from this clash of good policy and popular politics: the “contributory principle”. Their polls found that support for this idea - that by “paying in” one receives a better set of social guarantees than non-payers – was markedly higher amongst right-leaning voters in Denmark, France and Britain than their compatriots on the centre-left. Could a greater emphasis on contribution keep conservative voters’ support for the welfare state, even as governments shifted away from simply preserving the status quo?

The “contributory principle” is slippery, however. If it means an average voter contributing more, in order to receive better social insurance, they may simply see this as a tax to pay for something they are not demanding. If it means raising the same amount of money but excluding some people from the spending, this may indeed be popular with conservatives.

However, at least in a UK context, such a move might conflict with many other policy objectives. For example, the UK has had a problem with sickness benefits since the 1990s. But the problem has not been that those claiming hadn’t “paid in” in the past: the debate has been about who is genuinely unable to work and who could work with help. “Contribution” seems like an even harder concept to apply to the NHS or childcare.

Diamond and Lodge’s paper is an example of people on the British centre-left thinking not “how can we bash the right” but “what would we do in office?” Their analysis of how to get into office is, perhaps necessarily, incomplete. It is understandable given the paper’s focus, but it occasionally risks suggesting that the only reason people vote conservative is that social democrats have failed to offer them enough in benefits.

There may be many conservative-leaning voters who do not need to be offered public money in order to vote for parties of the welfare state. In fact, they may have the opposite concern: that social democrats are profligate and that economic incompetency puts at risk their private incomes, which are more important to them than anything they receive from the state. Standing up to welfare state conservatism and refusing to join every march might be one way to prove that those fears are misplaced.

Steve Van Riel is head of research at communications consultancy Centreground Political Communications. He was the Labour Party’s director of policy and research at the last general election.

This article is a response to European Welfare States after the Crisis: Changing public attitudes by Patrick Diamond and Guy Lodge.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Social Policy and Changing Welfare States.

Tags: Steve Van Riel , Opinion , Patrick Diamond , Guy Lodge , Europe , Denmark , France , United Kingdom , UK , Welfare , Welfare State , Social Security , David Cameron , Left , Centre-left , Tax , Crisis , Financial Crisis , Economic Crisis , Debt Crisis , Sovereign Debt Crisis , Welfare Benefits , Benefits , Responsible Capitalism , Progressive Conservatism , Pensions , NHS , Conservatives , Conservative Party , Tories , Tory , Labour Party , UK Labour , Social Investment , Contributory Principle , Right , Centre-right ,


24 February 2013 11:58

of such a humanistic bieelf more than 100 years ago:”[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It .is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth. Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).John Lofton, Editor, TheAmericanView.comRecovering Republican

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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