Once more New Labour has announced that its solution to poverty is to threaten to make the poor poorer. They have trotted out the old Daily Mail pleasing line, 'benefits sanctions if you lazy oiks do not do as you are told'. James Purnell's proposals for reform elicit a familiar response; anger from his own backbenches, anguish from Polly Toynbee and full support from the Tories. This is a curious Labour government.
There has been, rightly, a lot of fuss about recent attacks on human rights and civil liberties. However, there has also been an erosion of economic rights, as embodied in the universalist principles of the welfare state, through an increase in conditionality that has generated far less noise. Rights are disappearing and obligations multiplying.
Shuggy, both on his own site and the Drink-soaked Trots, does an excellent job on Labour's forward march to 1834 by attacking the notion that poverty is the result of the moral failings of the poor and opposing the concept of 'workfare'. The comments are well worth reading too. I would like to support his critique by committing further heresies against conventional wisdom.
The first is to question the notion of dependency culture. I always thought that this idea of a demotivated underclass languishing on benefits because that it is all they know, if it bore any relation to reality at all, mistook effect for cause. However, let's take it one step further and ask what is wrong with dependency? Why do we view dependency as being so bad? We are all dependent at different stages of our life; when we are children, when we are old, when we are sick. If people neglect us then, they are called cruel and heartless. A civilised society recognises dependency as a necessary condition in which we will all find ourselves at times and actually supports us through it. Instead, Labour is offering us Victorian parenting, a sound thrashing for our own good.
Secondly, there is a monomania about the only way out of poverty being work. Work may well be a good way out. However, it is also a route in. It depends what you get paid.
Wages depend largely on the position of people in the labour market. Unlike some of his modern followers, Adam Smith was deeply concerned about the dangers of the market depressing workers' income if their market position was weakened. Much of recent government policy has been devoted to doing just that.
Trade unions have been legislated against, employment protection weakened and the 'flexible workforce' promoted. Tax credits may be invaluable to the recipient, but, in reality, they are a state subsidy to employers and encourage low pay. Coercing people into the job market by removing their means of subsistence and getting them to, in effect, work for nothing puts more downward pressure on pay levels.
The way out of poverty is actually to have a secure, adequate income. Flitting between low paid, insecure work and periods of unemployment might look good on the statistics, but is not much use to individuals trapped in the whole dispiriting process.
Thirdly, governments have this wonderful self-confidence that they can shape human behaviour by using an economic stimulus. The problem is that people don't always respond as expected. And often their choices are damaging and anti-social, but make far more sense in the context of their lives than the approved route. For instance, if you take benefits away from someone with a drug addiction because they do not, or cannot, seek treatment what will they do? Rob you, that is what.
Cutting support may make people disappear from the statistics, but not necessarily into employment. They can sink into the black economy, homelessness, prostitution, crime - they become part of an invisible, disenfranchised poor.
And finally, if, as Shuggy suggests, we have necessary and inevitable structural unemployment, wouldn't it be better if the unemployed were actually the ones who want to be? They would be happier and better at it than those who want to work.
Let's be honest about this. Unemployment is a curse. If you want to see the damage it can do, look at the bitter experience of people who lost their jobs when mass unemployment hit under Thatcher. However, low pay, long hours, exploitation, exhaustion and stress are just as much a scourge. To pitch people from one to the other is not progress.
Working in adult education has allowed me to see the fantastic transformation that gaining qualifications and employment can make on individuals. I have also seen the complexity of the problems people need to overcome if they are to make that transformation. They need support, help and real choices, sometimes over a long period of time. The worst thing to do is to is to force them into inappropriate training or work through fear of the benefit officer, accompanied by constant anxiety over the loss of their means of support. An activist welfare policy makes a lot of sense, but not one that punishes the poor for the sin of their poverty and is really designed to cut spending and appeal to the right wing press.
The mainstream left has had to spend much time and energy rescuing itself from the stupidities of the "we are all Hezbollah now" brigade. It also needs to free itself from an authoritarian, centralising and conservative political economy and social policy if it is to be a left worthy of support. In Britain, after Glasgow East, it looks increasingly like this reinvention will take place in opposition. They have only themselves to blame.