Opinion: What’s wrong with the Welfare State?

Last Saturday the Social Liberal Forum met for its 2012 conference. Being in a centre-right Coalition with the Conservatives has not lead to an abandonment of our centre-left principles. Our achievements in Government represent a broader party ethos of our social democratic belief in the Welfare State. However, instead of evolving with the times, the Welfare State stands rigid and unreflective of the world we live in today. For example, our nation is getting older: 10 million people in the UK are over 65 years old. This is set to increase to 19 million by 2050 and advances in healthcare have meant that the old are living much longer than when the welfare state was conceived.

The current conception of the Welfare State belongs to an age of the post-war era, whilst the debate between the Left and the Right over benefits versus cuts in the post-2008 economic crisis is a false dichotomy. A root and branch overhaul of the Welfare State has never been achieved since its initial implementation. It approaches change on an incremental basis. I am not calling for the abolition of the Welfare State, but for a reflective state, one that prioritizes social mobility over hand-outs. The solution is not a simple cut in public spending or a cut in benefits. This overlooks the many problems faced by those most in need of the Welfare State. Far from helping the situation, this is most likely to lead to further disenchantment and puts us in the dangerous position of looking like yellow Tories.

An example of the reflective state I have in mind is Samuel Barratt’s ‘tuition fee’ style model for some benefits payments. As Liberal Democrats, we need to position ourselves as a party that welcomes social mobility. The Institute for Economic Affairs has re-examined the role of the Orange Book in influencing the party’s ideological outlook, with David Laws claiming the Liberal Democrats had moved too far away from the small “l” “liberal” inheritance of the party. Nick Clegg has previously rejected the ‘tribalism of left and right’ and instead described the Party as occupying the ‘radical centre’.

So, let’s re-focus on how we want the Welfare State to deliver social liberal ends. The Labour Party does not offer a credible alternative to a new Welfare State. The social democracy of Labour, coupled with its authoritarian policy agenda, is anything but liberalism. In comparison, our Party has a long history of taking its beliefs from both liberal and social democratic proponents.

We as Liberal Democrats should be emphasising the importance of pluralism, which is at the heart of our social and welfare reforms, as essentially liberal achievements. The solution to the Welfare State must come from a re-evaluation of the expectations of what the Welfare State is for. The debate over the size of the state, regardless of how big or small you imagine it to be, will still be met with the same problems over funding and resource allocation. As social liberals, we must create a reflective state that not only allows the individual the access to fair and equal opportunity, but a Welfare State that frees the individual instead of trapping them with a glass ceiling of benefits. For what’s wrong with the welfare state? – The perception that the state is the only solution to all our problems.

* Alex Smethurst is a Parliamentary Assistant and candidate for Redland ward in Bristol in the local elections in May (written in a personal capacity).

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  • Richard Dean 23rd Jul '12 - 6:12pm

    It’s difficult to know where to start! Perhaps it’s best to discuss ISSUES, rather than “what is wrong?”.

    SIZE seems to be an issue. The size has to be small enough to be acceptable to those who pay for it, and large enough to be accceptable to those who benefit from it.

    Obviously an aging population can increase the size of a pensions bill, so should we alter our idea of MISSION to compensate? What you refer to as a “re-evaluation of the expectations of what the Welfare State is for”. Is it intended to provide insurance, like unemployment benefit, emergency health care, winter fuel payments? Is it intended to provide basic services that can benefit every individual and also society generally, such as a health service, education, legal aid? And/or should its mission include providing services that may directly benefits only a few individuals in society, such as university education, cosmetic surgery?

    INTERACTION seems to be an issue. People might save less for old age if they knew they will get a generous state pension. Is this a reason to reduce the state pension? In a wider content, society is a system of interactive games players.. Does larger JSA disincentivize people to look for work? Does council house benefit incentivize large families with unemployed parents? Does social housing damage the housing market generally?

    HOW also seems an issue. Should a welfare state compete with charities? Should it compete with the private sector (as the NHS does)? Or should it make use of the private sector (as the NHS might!)? Must a welfare state have general rules, or can local adjustments be made, and of so, how do we distinguish valid adjustments from corruption?

    Sorry if this is a bit of a rant. But you did ask for a “reflective” state!

  • Alex Smethurst 23rd Jul '12 - 9:30pm

    @Richard although I agree there are many things wrong, I was of course limited by a word count. On the size issue, this really misses the point of the article. I am looking at the state itself and the perception that this is the solution. All your points, in effect, assume that the state is the solution to certain problems. It is this assumption that leads us to the road about how best to deal with the Welfare State as what we have now, which, as I try to argue in the article, is a Welfare State that is not fit for purpose.

  • Richard Dean 23rd Jul '12 - 10:22pm

    There is an interesting book called “The Welfare State We’re In” by James Bartholemew which also claims that the state is the wrong actor to choose as the solution provider.

    I suspect it may be helpful to start with the question of MISSION. What is the mission of welfare? From mission will flow the actors and roles.

  • Alex Smethurst 24th Jul '12 - 10:08pm

    I’m grateful for all the comments. I think the main concern however is over the State, when in fact I want to move the debate to how the individual perceives the State

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