Analysis: Labour's New Jerusalem, BBC, BBC Radio 4, Blindcraft, Brendan O'Neill, Disability, Ed Miliband, Labour, Local Democracy, Lord Maurice Glasman, Mukul Devichand, Opinion, Politics, Sir Robin Wales, The Engine Shed, Welfare, Welfare Dependency, work
It may seem a suspicious coincidence that politicians in the middle of a recession have suddenly discovered that welfare is bad for people. Yet this is the radical “new” thinking at the top of the (English) Labour Party and amongst almost half of Labour’s remaining supporters. In tonight’s edition of BBC Radio 4’s Analysis, “Labour’s New New Jerusalem,” Mukul Devichand shone a flashlight into the murky pond of Ed Miliband’s brain, to reveal some of the “Blue Labour” creatures who are swimming about at the bottom. They oppose centralised welfare and all of its demoralising effects.
We met Lord Maurice Glasman, who launched the Blue Labour movement in 2009. Rather like Dick Dastardly, Glasman was back for more after being defeated in a previous episode. In 2011, he had proposed that Britain should close its borders to EU migrants and this had proved too much even for an immigrant hater like Ed Miliband. Now Glasman had returned with the claim that the welfare state is “legalistic, contractual [and] inhumane.” He contended that welfare provision should be more locally-orientated and “judgemental,” and in this he was seconded by Sir Robin Wales, the Labour Mayor of Newham, who naturally walks the walk when championing local government. There was also a Blue Labour-ish clip from John Cruddas, who is due to author the next Labour manifesto.
In setting out to explore the “new” thinking of the Blue Labour clique, Analysis had to avoid writing them off too early by clarifying Glasman’s true standing within the Labour Party. It seems that no article about Glasman is complete without the word “eccentric.” This painfully unstatesmanlike figure apparently refuses to eat vegetables, whilst a 2011 New Statesman hatchet job reports that his agenda “is influenced by Aristotle, Miles Davis, Aldo Moro, Lionel Messi and the Pope.” Polly Toynbee punctuated Analysis with a succession of shrill warnings about blue rinse Labour, only to dismiss them in the end as harmless. Her coup de grace was the hope that, “this will end up being a creative policy with a lot of good ideas, that it will spark all sorts of things off…”
Unfortunately, a recent ComRes poll found 64% of the British public contending that the benefits system either does not work well or is “failing.” Considering how many snappy statistics they have to hand, it is a marker of how badly the Left are doing that there is still widespread public scepticism towards unemployment benefits. Only 3% of the whole welfare budget goes towards Jobseekers Allowance. Most benefits are paid to people who are already in work, with the state essentially subsidising the capitalists’ low wages. In any case, joblessness can be scarcely considered a personal failing in a city such as London where in a third of boroughs there are more than ten people chasing each vacancy.
Welcome to the school of putting the cart before the horse. Welfare can be infinitely reorganised but if there are simply not enough jobs to go around, or if the taxpayer is funding wages through schemes such as housing benefit, then the cart is going nowhere.
I have time for scepticism against welfare when it comes from one such as the Marxist Brendan O’Neill, who insists that welfare dependency infantilises people and undermines their autonomy. In 2011 Edinburgh lost the Blindcraft factory, which had employed over 200 blind and disabled workers. In a universe a million miles away from the one inhabited by today’s political establishment, blind workers were left begging the council for work rather than benefits. Now the Engine Shed, which provides training and employment to young disabled people, is at the front line of the welfare war. Unless the Shed is maintained by private finance, it will be shut down to spare a shaving off Edinburgh City Council’s budget. It is surely indisputable that in our society, with our technology, any disabled person should demand and receive employment.
Blue Labour, however, are not arguing along these lines. Grosman waxes about “incentives to virtue” and his “new new Jerusalem” aspires to engineer better behaviour in the undeserving poor. Blue Labour’s model of localism sounds paradoxically regimental, with every community being given the “power and opportunity” to launch the innovative local schemes which are evidently expected of them.
Leaving aside the practical consideration that Sir Robin Wales has rolled out all sorts of civic programmes under the existing legislation, Blue Labour’s localism effectively harks back to Victorian municipal improvements. One cannot sustain an economic recovery on nostalgia: not since the days of Joseph Chamberlain have ambitious politicians dedicated their talents to fixing potholes and preserving public libraries, whilst Edinburgh’s local politicians offer a contrary example of too much localism, having lately spent millions on their loopy tram fiasco rather than jobs for the disabled. Labour will only deliver mass employment through ambitious national policies, and retreating into localism means that the cart is not only going nowhere, it is also facing in the wrong direction.