‘The Welfare State’ is a loaded phrase in politics. It is a phrase from which Labour have steered the public away in recent years.
Old Labour dreaded the phrase, often weaponised by their political opponents. Though before my time, I remember friends telling me their parents had told them ‘only people on benefits vote Labour, who give them everything they want for free’. This ‘something for nothing’ attitude is one that Labour were plagued with. Not only has this seemingly disappeared, but so have many traditional attitudes about the big bad ‘Welfare State’. So what is the state of this state – is it working, and if not, what are our options?
Well, sort of. The Welfare State works in that people aren’t starving who would otherwise. But is this really the best we can do? There are a startling number of people who are forced to rely on in-work benefits in this country. In-work benefits. Say that back in your head. The idea that we pay people so low that they have to rely on state benefits, in the 9th richest country on Earth – is insane. There are also doubts on how economically viable that is. It’s hard to put an exact figure on just how expensive our system of welfare is, but it does appear expensive.
Raising the minimum wage surely has to be a priority. The current minimum wage for 21-24 year olds is £7.36, and £7.86 for those over 26. The Living Wage Foundation estimates that the ‘real’ living wage, that is the amount one actually needs to live, is £8.75. If you live in London, this amount should be £10.20. As a first step, a genuine National Living Wage as the bare minimum would make a welcome change. This would remove the absurd need for in-work benefits for a start, let alone the impact it will have on people’s lives.
Conservative governments have also been accused of not doing enough to protect those onto low-paid, insecure jobs. In fact, some argue that the entire scope of our economy has changed. We now have many traits of a ‘gig economy’. At the most extreme end of this, you have the likes of Uber – which has often appealed court rulings proposed changes in employment legislation that could affect its eye-watering revenue.
Changing the nature of the expensive welfare state necessitates, (or would perpetuate) a change in the fundamental nature of our economy. But this change isn’t unrealistic, if the support for some Labour’s current policies is anything to go by. For example, a universal basic income is a policy showing a lot of promise in its trials across Europe, and could potentially be a viable replacement. One thing’s for sure, our welfare system is broken, and needs fixing.