On social security, Labour should focus on ‘shared responsibility’ not ‘fairness’

9:36 am - August 19th 2013

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by Sam Fowles

We’re 21 months out from the General Election and thus far a potential Labour manifesto looks like Muller Lite to the Tories’ Deluxe Corner – a bit better for me but unlikely to rock my world.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the Welfare debate – a catalogue of Labour surrenders based on one fundamental misconception: That public policy can or should be based on “fairness”. In lackluster unison, the opponents of Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms mumble that it is unfair that families with severely disabled kids should have their welfare income limited to £500 per week. Meanwhile the Tories thunder that it’s not fair hardworking families should pay taxes so the unemployed can live on a higher income.

The trouble is; they’re both right. But only because our public debate has reduced individuals in society to the level of rats escaping a fire; each trying to make sure that someone else’s life is more unfair than ours. And Labour’s just accepted it.

But public policy isn’t about “fairness” or “unfairness”, it’s about responsibility.

The rightwing paradigm, where contributing to society is seen as an imposition which must be forced upon us, reduces people to Hobbesian savages and society to a series of punitive burdens imposed by government. In fact, the innate ability to live as a society is what makes us unique as a species. Society is not an imposition on humans, it is the essence of humanity.

It is also a responsibility to make the world better for the next generation, not because we will personally profit from it but because, if we don’t, what’s the point of us being here at all? We don’t ask why we should try to give our children a better life, we just accept that we should.

But limiting our responsibility to our blood relatives is a logical fallacy. The fact that someone shares my DNA will do nothing to protect them from winds of fortune of which I can neither conceive nor control. Thus our natural responsibility to our own children and innate responsibility to society become one and the same.

Government should be the expression of our collective responsibility. As the expression of our democratic will, government can facilitate us fulfilling our innate individual responsibility and leave us, as individuals, lots of time to indulge our irrational impulses as well.

Not for nothing did JFK urge Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. In the Labour party, social responsibility should be the bedrock of our creed. Ideas like patriotism, community and national purpose should be the spiritual home of the left, yet Labour seems afraid to claim them.

We support welfare, human rights, universal healthcare and free education because – fundamentally – we believe that society advances when it co operates. We believe that, as citizens and as humans, we have a responsibility to advance society.

While appeals to Aristotelian ethics may not play so well on the doorstep, perhaps a good start might be to suggest voters (and politicians) remember their humanity.

Sam Fowles is a researcher in International Law and Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He tweets at @SamFowles

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Reader comments

The OP confuses ‘society’ with the ‘state’.

If a programme is to be based on fairness then it needs to go right back to fundamentals. What is fair about anybody being born into abject poverty or insane riches? Nothing. We need a society in which we are born equal not just in a formal sense but in the real economic sense which is the only one that matters. Most public wealth is squandered on the fact that we are not born equal on useless remedial actions to make up for the fact which never and cannot make up for the fact. End this bourgeois lottery, this capitalist anarchy, dressed increasingly threadbarely as a meritocracy and the obviously bogus illusions of social mobility except, for the masses, who are being flushed all to really from the gutter down to the sewer.

That’s all fair enough, and in a perfect world it would be ideal.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. The question has never been about “should we or should we not have social security.” It is about how we pay for it, who should pay for it and who deserves the proceeds of it.

“Thus our natural responsibility to our own children and innate responsibility to society become one and the same.”

It’s all well & good to want to be – as one, but this “idea”, I’d guess, is a few hundred years, at least, premature!

Society as a whole will have to have a more conscious moment, a consciousness that is universal, loving, understanding and as much as anyone would love to see all minds become one for the benefit of all we are only just out of our caveman days, well many are, & so for that loving caring society that so many desire to come about our society needs to grow up mentally are whole mountain range more.

Geez! Even reading that back myself I felt all sickly sweet, but very grown up for writing it :O)

Great OP. given these ideas are so old, as well as being Moral Philosophy 101, it’s surprising we haven’t heard them before.

6. Man On Clapham Omnibus

A nice piece but what is missed any consideration of the states role in post capitalist society. The only fairness in society was won largely by class conflict through the trade unions. Now the unions are largely dead with Milliband in the process of padding down the soil, most drivers for even decency are disappearing.
The problem in post capitalist oligarchic society is money is made through money. Anyone outside the City can stack shelves on a 0 hours contract or live off free parcels on a payday loan. Whether this is sustainable in the long run it is irrelevant. Ultimately, the spiral of decline will be such that it will be unstoppable.
The politics you see is the politics of a Malthusian meltdown. The Tories will protect their own and Labour (the ones that haven’t set themselves up in Boardrooms anyway)will struggle to pedal against the tide. This is why the likes of Milliband have so little purchase on politics at this time. The left have so little to say because there really isn’t anything to say except the old platitudes of yesteryear.

It’s “lacklustre” not “lackluster. It’s difficult to take ranters who can’t spell seriously, especially since even most browsers have checkers built into them. Although I don not expect someone ever to use the word “compassion” please note for future reference that the letter “s” appears twice between “a” and “i”. Have a nice life!

The welfare state was never about ‘fairness’ or indeed ‘responsibility’, it was supposed to be a safety net for temporary unemployment within an environment which guaranteed full employment (for men). It enabled those who were temporarily unemployed to continue spending (supporting the economy).

Full employment (left to the market) is no longer a possibility, but without the ability to consume for thousands who are unemployed, would drive the current depression even further. Moreover, we are now paying out somewhere in the region of £51 billion pounds per year in tax credits and housing benefit for those in employment(courtesy of New Labour).

We either need to change the economic base or the welfare state, appeals to fairness and equality are worthless without the material ability to maintain survival.


Dr Johnson had something to say about this. Leave it alone.

Fairness, social responsibility and opportunity for all is a start.

10. Man on Clapham Omnibus

‘We either need to change the economic base or the welfare state, appeals to fairness and equality are worthless without the material ability to maintain survival’

The answer is in the Unions not Labour if we want to see a transformation in this country. The Unions are the only organisation left which can represent workers in their workplaces and demand betterment. The Labour party has been
disemboweled of any remenance of social conscience since it turned to conservatism under Blair.

We need to return to non monopolistic competitive capitalism funded by small banks devoted to industry.
Or maybe just become Germans.

As globalisation proceeds, low skilled jobs will move to low wage economies. This process will accelerate until a balance of incomes and employment opportunities exists throughout the world. While this is a good thing, it also means that unemployment will be more evenly spread.

It is inconceivable that the current welfare provisions will be sustainable, yet people have a right to life. While even dumb animals can feed and shelter themselves, we have been made entirely reliant on the economy for our very survival. This limits our ability to make free and democratic choices, putting undue economic conditions on the right to life itself.

A market economy, for all its benefits, tends to commodify everything. Fundamentally the economy has totally commodified all land by which people traditionally might feed and shelter themselves, whatever their skill level. This commodification has also led to an unsustainable neglect of responsibilities to the land, because the market place determines interactions with the land rather than the principles of human rights and responsibilities.

By specifying exactly what one’s responsibilities would be in using the land to feed and shelter oneself, we would see there was plenty of sustainable work to do for anyone wishing to take up their right and responsibilities. Regardless of skill levels, with the proper support people could be much better able to look after their wellbeing.

There are many thousands of people who, because they have no marketable role are marginalised. For the most part, these people are not totally incapacitated, it’s the fact that they may find themselves marginalised, often without housing security or a role that leads to problems.

If they had housing security, some might willingly take up the challenge of developing and applying skills for a neighbourhood that works, if by doing so they could find a meaningful role and a real sense of belonging in their communities.

Fresh food from a community garden or access to a shared resource like a box trailer could also be incentives for people who need to stretch their dollars further.
Where competitive employment and welfare dependency has marginalised, an opportunity like this could be a new way forward for some, liberating that natural inclination to look for improvement once we have control over the basics.

Core to this idea is the integration of neighbourhood participation with a person’s natural right to establish a secure home.

To provide the rental housing security for this commitment to the neighbourhood, government would be the ideal landlord … marginalisation and the betterment of neighbourhoods also being government concerns.

A socially and environmentally sustainable neighbourhood that works is not only needed by marginalised people looking for security and social participation, it is also a critically important neighbourhood culture that is largely missing. see http://ntw.net46.net/NTWmodel/NTWModeloverview.htm

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