Opposition to the Conservative government’s welfare reforms are high on hyperbole and outrage, but tellingly low on alternative proposals. To listen to many voices on the Left is to be told that we live in a uniquely heartless and uncaring age, where living standards are being deliberately driven to unprecedented lows by the deliberate actions of a government which is not just wrong, but actually evil.
Here’s Laurie Penny in the New Statesman, pouring scorn on the very thought of verifying that claims for sickness and disability benefit are genuine:
‘Nobody gets to be sick any longer under Iain Duncan Smith (so good at rebranding ideological cuts that they named him twice, once for each face). Navigating this system is humiliating enough for disabled people without them being lied to every step of the way. If the DWP would just come out and say that it doesn’t believe the state should help people who are ill, disabled or injured, it would somehow be more bearable. At least people would know where it stood’
And here’s the Green Party’s Jonathan Bartley, churning out the latest conventional left-wing thinking over at Left Foot Forward:
For IDS it is now clear that disability is not something to be embraced, let alone celebrated as part of the diversity which makes us all stronger. Disability is an aberration. It is a problem which needs to be fixed.’
Left-wing opposition to Tory welfare reforms has now become so reflexive and so unthinking that encouraging people to work and become economically self-sufficient – with all the freedom that it brings – is now actively seen as a bad thing.
They insist that to help or encourage people away from dependence on benefits (thus protecting them from vulnerability to future policy and benefit changes) is seen as an unconscionable assault on their “human rights”. This is dangerous, hyperbolic nonsense.
You can argue that Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms are completely wrong but it is then incumbent on you to suggest an alternative. Wailing and breast-beating about the inhumanity of the evil Tories is not enough if you want to be part of the grown-up debate. If these welfare reforms are bad, what welfare reforms would be good? Or had the British welfare system reached a state of perfection before Labour were booted out of office in 2010?
Assuming that the answer to that last question is “no”, critics of the Conservative Party should then outline the kind of welfare system that they would like to see, one that puts the current flawed system to shame. Presumably there would be no checks of any kind carried out on ESA or JSA claims, and no ongoing interviews or assessments either – rather, the system would operate on a “goodwill” basis, since all of the real-world examples of people gaming the system are nothing more than Tory propaganda.
Since they are making so much noise about Tory welfare reforms, the Left must be bubbling over with creative ways for the state to help the disadvantaged, the sick and the disabled to become self-sufficient and financially free of dependence on the government. They must be sitting on folders and folders of great policy ideas, just waiting for the day when they seize back power at Westminster.
Unless they actually like the idea of people being permanently dependent on the state. Which in fact, they do.
And that’s the real reason for the ferocious response to the Conservative government’s welfare reforms. Individual cases of benefits being inappropriately sanctioned or valid applications being wrongly denied are terrible, of course, particularly where they lead to real human suffering. But this is a problem of bureaucratic administration, not of ideology. We could eliminate these wrong decisions by accepting every application on good faith, but let’s not pretend that there will be no negative behavioural consequences to such a policy. And of course, the cost to the taxpayer – the people who actually pay for the welfare state – would increase exponentially.
But that’s just fine, according to many on the Left. Because to demand any form of supporting evidence before approving a claim on the income of other taxpayers is not seen as good stewardship of the public finances, but rather as an entirely excessive and unreasonable expectation. And that largely comes down to the way that the Left view the state.
When you expect the state to be an auxiliary parent to every one of its citizens, as many on the Left now do, you naturally then want that familial relationship to be warm and generous. But the government is not our third parent. We have a duty to care for our neighbour, yes, but the responsibility we have to help the disadvantaged and the sick or disabled does not extend to writing a blank cheque from the taxpayer to an unreformed, broken welfare system.
Could it be that the Left is just high on moral outrage but low on alternative workable solutions? It’s very easy to stand on the sidelines throwing rocks at the evil Tories as they try to govern in the interests of everyone – taxpayers and benefit claimants alike. It’s easy to flaunt your virtue and compassion credentials by coming up with ever ruder remarks about Iain Duncan Smith. What’s difficult – and what exposes you to critical analysis and potential disagreement – is proposing something different.
With Jeremy Corbyn on the verge of being elected as the next leader of the Labour Party, the Left are busy rejoicing at the return of conviction politics, and a new age where sticking to your principles and telling the electorate what you really think – persuasion rather than flattery – is more important than the grubby work of centrist political compromise.
So in the spirit of this socialist revival, let’s have it: what does the Left’s ideal welfare state actually look like? Is helping people to become financially and physically independent one of the main goals, or is the plan to encourage permanent dependency and reliance on the state. And just out of curiosity, how much will it cost us?
Samuel Hooper is a journalist and blogger, passionate about politics, free markets, civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter here.