Labour’s Soft Left Turn on Welfare

Fears that Labour is returning to hawkishness on welfare seem misplaced, but the party is making a pivot to the pandemic’s better-heeled ‘new’ unemployed – one which will do little to foster social solidarity.

The coming recession will make welfare policy increasingly important to the economy. So it was no surprise that a recent interview by the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, received great attention among Labour members.

In the interview, Reynolds offered a hint of Starmerism’s probable direction of travel. ‘Support for social security has diminished amongst parts of the country’, Reynolds remarked to Politics Home, suggesting that Labour needs to make benefit payments more reflective of ‘what you put it in’ in national insurance prior to becoming unemployed.

Those wary of a rightward drift under the new leadership have been quick to recall New Labour’s keenness to ‘think the unthinkable’ on welfare, or Ed Miliband’s banning his front bench from using the term in interviews at all. Left-wing MPs Richard Burgon and Diane Abbott, meanwhile, said that it was never ‘more important to make the case for universalism in our social security system’, and that to do otherwise is to flirt with ‘the notion of the deserving poor.’ 

Part of the relief many of us experienced during Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure was that he broke with the habit of previous leaders, who had imagined that progressive policies needed to be counterbalanced by socially reactionary rhetoric. At first glance, Reynolds’ statement sounded like the bad old days, when Labour routinely helped to drag attitudes to the right because of its own anxious pandering.

‘Benefits cheats’ and ‘skivers’ may have been the chosen bogeymen of the Cameron era, but with Brexit and immigration the signature targets of Johnsonism, and with the employment of much of the country hanging by a thread, we hear of them less and less. Why question ‘political support’ for welfare now?

It is worth saying that Reynolds’ position is not actually the punitive dig at those who have not ‘paid in’ enough that it first looked like. Low earners and the long-term unemployed are not the focus of the comments at all, and would benefit from some of Reynolds’ other suggestions. Instead, his position is better interpreted as a pitch for middle and even high earners, who never imagined that they would be unemployed, but who now anticipate being so due to the contraction of the economy following Covid-19.

As the Autonomy think tank has reported, unemployment is following its predictable patterns for an economic downturn, but is also escalating in industries and regions that have historically been insulated from unemployment. Many of those who have ‘put in more’ are in the process of learning first-hand how punishing even the temporarily liberalised version of the current benefits system is, while others wonder if they’ll be joining them when the government’s furlough scheme ends in October. As Reynolds says, such workers may have made ‘significant contributions to the system’ but won’t be ‘eligible for any major support […] even in a crisis like this one’. 

Corbynism recognised the need to create a wedge between low and a sizeable number of middle and high earners on the one hand, and the very highest on the other: something it did spectacularly well in 2017 but failed to do in 2019. As the Covid-19 crisis is throwing former middle and high earners into a new and unfamiliar dependence on the state, this would seem a renewed opportunity for the Labour leadership to demonstrate what this basic coalition of interests might look like.

By exploiting a situation where the formerly secure are suddenly seeing how the other half live, the case could be made for raising the minimum standard for everybody. Instead, Reynolds’ offer of more for those who had more to begin with threatens to escalate the two-tier elements of the existing system, offering one experience to the ‘temporarily embarrassed’, another for the properly and already poor. This, rather than an attack on ‘scroungers’ or a return to Milibandism is its real weakness.

The hitherto better off may well become the addressees of a distinctively ‘soft left’ policy programme in the Starmer era. Reynolds’ remarks eschew Labour’s pre-Corbyn performative hawkishness on welfare to focus on a positive offer, but a positive offer for the relative few, that abandons universalism and hobbles Labour’s ability to mitigate against the punitive and illiberal direction of travel welfare policy has taken for the poorest over the past decade. 

A leitmotif of New Labour’s welfare policies was that the unemployed were not adequate citizens, and needed to be returned to the proper ‘community’ through the beneficence of work. As we argue in Work Want Work: Labour and Desire at the End of Capitalism, the Coalition and subsequent Conservative governments pursued this in its most perverse aspect, treating the active withdrawal of citizenship rights as a lever for disciplining those who became unemployed.

Benefit sanctions went from being a tool to prevent claimants illegitimately refusing work in strictly limited exceptions, to being a way of punishing not just all unemployed, but single parents, the long term sick, and disabled people, often for minor infractions in navigating the complicated bureaucracy of the system itself.

Usually meaning the withdrawal of an individual’s entire source of income, it is impossible to reconcile the routine use of benefit sanctions with a belief in the liberal state’s responsibility to guarantee a baseline living standard to all its citizens. Indeed, as the case studies in Jeremy Seabrook’s book Cut Out: Living Without Benefits, attest, this has often meant kicking people out of what most of us think of as normal citizenship altogether. 

Reynolds has counselled a ‘less punitive approach’ during the coming recession and has pledged elsewhere to draw up ‘a full replacement’ to the Tory benefits system. But advocating special treatment for the pandemic’s better-heeled ‘new’ unemployed does nothing to create solidarity with those whose social condition they are about to share, and only makes harder the task of reversing the unjust principles of the welfare policy of the past decade.  

About the Author

James A. Smith is the author of Other People's Politics: Populism to Corbynism (Zero Books, 2019) and Work Want Work: Labour and Desire at the End of Capitalism (Zed Books, 2020, with Mareile Pfannebecker).

Mareile Pfannebecker is a research associate in critical theory and early modern literature at Strathclyde University. She is the co-author of Work Want Work (Zed, 2020).