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Home Opinion Growing public insecurity will clash with staunch reform
Welfare • Public Opinion • Social Security

Growing public insecurity will clash with staunch reform

Kristian Weise - 22 February 2013

In the midst of the on-going crisis, Europeans hang on to the most championed qualities of their welfare states. While that might make things more difficult for staunch ‘reformers’, it makes perfect sense and provides an opportunity for a clear social democratic narrative

The welfare state’s ability to handle and balance old vs. new risks is the crux of a new paper by Patrick Diamond and Guy Lodge. In the paper, ‘European Welfare States after the Crisis’, Diamond and Lodge survey public attitudes in the UK, France and Denmark, and come to the conclusion that across these ‘different worlds of welfare capitalism’ sentiments weigh heavily in favour of defending existing social security entitlements rather than implementing reforms aimed at assisting families and children.

The authors deserve praise for their interesting polling into public opinion of welfare states across Europe and the questions the results give rise to. However, their concern that the welfare state’s edifice is shoring up at exactly the time that it ought to be adapting might be overstated.

Diamond and Lodge make a very valid point when arguing that growing inequalities in electoral participation – with significantly lower voter turn-out among the young and the poor, in the UK for example – might heighten intergenerational and distributional conflicts. The concerns of younger generations and marginalised groups of people are already sacrificed at the expense of elders and well off middle-class citizens. But the fact that people prioritise unemployment benefits, pensions and healthcare at a time of crisis should not imply that progressive politicians will be unable to develop European welfare states to the new challenges meeting their constituents. 

Though new risks emerge, old risks do not disappear. It will be of central importance for progressives to develop new answers to the fact that “new ‘clusters’ of long-term social disadvantage and inequality are emerging as the global economy attenuates polarisation in labour markets and real wages”, as the authors put it. Nevertheless, mass unemployment and old-age poverty will persist. Indeed, unemployment has risen significantly through Europe over the last 5 years, while many people have seen their prospects of retiring in comfort fade.

Moreover, when the storm hits you, you hold on to what you know and whatever you can. So it should be no surprise that our populations cherish the traditional and tangible pillars of the welfare state rather than the more intangible arrangements such as maternity leave and child-benefits.

As the authors show, this is even the case in Denmark – a country that stands as an epitome of the modern Nordic ‘service intensive’ welfare state, and where ‘social investment’ such as public childcare has shown many positive results, as higher social mobility and female participation in the labour market show, but where, for the moment, there is not much support for shifting further to this kind of welfare model.  Rather than exhibiting a desire for prioritising investment that might equip them for the future, Danes too look for further security here and now.

Such preferences are by no doubt influenced by the grim perspective that the present and the future presents. However, they are – in Denmark as in the other surveyed countries – also the result of the reform-trajectory that the individual country has been through.

In Denmark, the biggest welfare debates and concrete reforms over the last couple of years has been the dismantling of pre-pension/early retirement, which will cease to exist over the next decades, as well as the reform of contributory unemployment benefits, i.e. state-supported unemployment insurance, for which the period that one can receive these benefits has been reduced from 4 to 2 years.

Furthermore, Denmark is already considered to have gone through a transition from a traditional ‘welfare state’ to a new version of a ‘competitive state’. In the traditional welfare state, the purpose of the state was to protect citizens from market forces, while in the competitive state the aim is to equip them to contend in the global economy. These changes can be seen in a range of areas, from employment and social policy to the organisation of primary education.

In this light it does not seem strange that voters who are faced with the worst economic downturn in eight decades show preferences that high-light the more traditional parts of the protective state, such as unemployment benefits and pensions, rather than the more forward-looking elements of social investment. Such preference can be seen as a exhibiting a ‘conservative bias’, but nevertheless appear logical in the perspective of self- and group-interests.

The lessons for the centre-left from the public attitudes in Denmark, France and the UK should be clear.

First, in times of rising insecurity and anxiety about the future, progressive politicians must be able to convince the public that they can provide the security and the hope of a better future that people are longing for. If progressives cannot do this convincingly, they have left the playing field to liberals and conservatives whose strategies of austerity as a way to regain economic momentum will appear just as credible, if not more.

Secondly, the most extensive and thorough reforms should be made in good times. Such timing is better economics because the potential negative effects on demand, stemming from the concerns of the population and from effects of weakened public spending, will be lower in an economic upturn. And it is better politics because voters will be more inclined to accept such changes at a time when these changes will have less of an effect on their lives.

In consequence, the social democratic crisis-narrative should be as follows: we’ll use every tool possible to protect you from the immediate turmoil and to leave the slump as fast as possible, as well as toil relentlessly to equip you and our society to meet the challenges of the future once we have put the worst behind us. Such a narrative would both resonate with public opinion and provide responsible policies for the future.

Kristian Weise is Director of the Danish thinktank Cevea

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

Tags: Kristian Weise , Opinion , Patrick Diamond , Guy Lodge , Europe , Denmark , France , United Kingdom , UK , Welfare , Welfare State , Social Security , George Osborne , Left , Centre-left , Tax , Crisis , Financial Crisis , Economic Crisis , Debt Crisis , Sovereign Debt Crisis , Contributory Principle , Welfare Benefits , Benefits , Beveridge , Beveridge Report , Universalism , Means Test , Responsible Capitalism , Progressive Conservatism , Pensions , Social Insurance , Social Investment

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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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