The Labour party – or, to be more accurate, John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor – has now come slowly to the conclusion that Universal Credit doesn’t work: it is not sustainable and it “will have to go”. An article last month in the New Statesman blamed the state of Labour’s policy on social security on the lack of vigour shown by their previous social security representative, which left them with no spending plans to pay for changes in policy. The problems run much deeper.
A large part of UC is a legacy of ‘welfare reform’ in the last Labour government: the belief in ‘personalisation’, the dependence on means-testing in Tax Credits, the policies on overpayments, and most of all the muddle between the role of benefits and the task of preparing some people for work. The last Labour manifesto, in 2017, didn’t challenge any of that. They included a clutch of measures to switch the system back to what it was a short time ago – sanctions, the bedroom tax, Housing Benefit cuts and the like. Then there were tweaks to make disability benefits and UC work a bit better. And there were a few aspirations, such as improving the culture or removing barriers for people with disabilities, which weren’t tied to specific policies at all. The shift in relation to UC is a welcome move in the right direction, but Labour needs to think rather more thoroughly and deeply about what social security is for and how it might be changed.