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Monday, 9 July 2012

Opportunity knocks for Labour

The conservative-Lib Dem coalition government will provide the Labour party with a once in a generation opportunity to reform and reorder the welfare state. The current government, through necessity or ideology, have embarked on a programme of radical reform of the welfare state at the same time as severe cuts to its budget. This is a crisis for those who depend on services which are disappearing, and an opportunity for Labour to plan how to get them back in the future. Firstly, Labour need to get back into power to make anything of this opportunity. But the opportunity arises because the welfare state has been so preened. Labour gets the chance to start again with an almost blank sheet and remake and reform the welfare state for the 21st century. What worked in 1950 may not work in 2020, and given how the current government is hollowing-out and removing so much, Labour has the chance to build it back up. Not only that, but Labour has the chance to take the mantel as the party of the welfare state, not only those on welfare but the party who understands the needs of ordinary people. Given how the current government is doing, being the party of the ordinary working majority should be an open goal. Labour has to win the battle of ideas. Labour must make the case for why we need a welfare state: to support those who need it, who work hard but are not rewarded by their work, those who are taken for a ride by corrupt practices, and those who have fallen on hard times under the current government. Then, Labour must sketch out what this new welfare state should look like. For me, what matters is that those who need it get it, and get what they need. I don’t have an objection to a company or a charity providing it so long as they do it just as well as the state would or better. The welfare state should not exist to line the pockets of doctors, teachers or anyone else. But they must be paid well enough to attract the best. And we should concentrate on making British people the best through a world-class education system which can feed in to world class welfare services so that we don’t need to look abroad, but don’t lose our best abroad. It may be heresy in some quarters to say that the state need not provide everything, but I look to history for support. When Nye Bevan set up the NHS, he did so to make sure that those who needed medical care got it, regardless of their ability to pay. The state paying the bill was, and is, the only way that poor people can get the treatment they need. But it’s the money, not the provision that matters. If we truly care about the people who need, and get, what they need, we need to make sure that they get the best. With state provision cut to the bone under the current government, Labour has a unique opportunity to build up rather than reform. The Labour government of 1945-51 under Attlee started without a welfare state to reform, but had to overcome opposition to it. The governments of 1997-2010 had a crumbling welfare state to build up, but had the people of this country who supported the welfare state behind them. Now once again the Tories have wrecked the welfare state, Labour has the opportunity to build it up afresh, new and ready for the challenges of the future. They will need to win the battle of idea, get the right policies in place and work out how to pay for it all. That is far from easy, but this is a great opportunity which they should not let through their fingers.

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