28 July 2011

Learning to love the welfare state

James Purnell made some interesting welfare reform proposals on Newsnight yesterday. I have a soft spot for Purnell because he played in a game of football (senior advisors vs junior analysts) when I was at the Department for Work & Pensions and he was the Minister.

He also makes a very interesting point with regards to the Gillian Duffy episode; the whole dirty immigration debate is largely wound up with people's perceptions of unfairness in the welfare system. Lots of people believe that illegal immigrants are basically handed big wads of cash and free cars and houses upon arrival. There are lots of genuine racists out there, but there are also lots of people who genuinely care about fairness. And the welfare system is not fair, it is too easy to game.

So Purnell proposes a fundamental rethink starting from a clean slate, and reconfiguring the system to function more like the insurance scheme that it was designed to be. Personally, I really don't even understand why National Insurance is called insurance at all, and I worked as a British labour market analyst for a year. If welfare is to be an insurance scheme rather than a gravy train, it needs to be able to be transparently understood as an insurance scheme.

And who knows, if we can fix welfare, we might even be able to dial down the toxicity in the immigration debate. And never mind Blue Labour, with any luck we can get a proper progressive New Labour renewal with some proper progressive Blairites.

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