In a pamphlet published by the Fabian Society, Keir Starmer lays out a series of policies and priorities. There are brief – very brief – genuflections in the direction of child and pensioner poverty, though the only policy I can see that is related to either is the fleeting suggestion that there has to be a reduction in poverty-related lack of educational attainment. On benefits, Starmer offers us this:
We would replace universal credit and reimagine our social security system to ensure that work pays. We want low-paid people to keep more of the money they earn, so that having enough money to raise a family isn’t the
preserve of the better-off.
Apart from replacing Universal Credit, that looks a lot like some standard Conservative pledges: make work pay and cut taxes. On the first, there’s a simple problem: making work pay is done by making work pay, not by changing benefit systems. On the second, while it’s true that low earners have important problems, the central issue is not about money deducted from earnings. For low earners, the most obvious problems are income security, the costs of housing and child care. However, most people on benefits are not earners. They’re pensioners, they’re sick, they’re full-time carers, or they’re unemployed. Politicians in both major parties have fixated on the relationship of benefits to the labour market; it’s only a small part of what benefits do.
If Starmer’s priorities are not about well-being, or poverty, what are they about? What he has to say about public services looks like this:
we must face the future. That means a new settlement between government, business and working people. It means completely rethinking where power lies in our country – driving it out of the sclerotic and wasteful parts of a centralized system and into the hands of people and communities across the land. It means banishing the culture that unthinkingly accepts public services not keeping up with the sort of advances we have come to expect in the private sector.
In what respect are our public services inferior to the private sector – apart from funding? Who thinks our NHS is wasteful – seriously? How can it be acceptable to focus on “government, business and working people” – the corporatism of the 1970s – when a quarter of the population are not part of any of it? There is nothing in this pamphlet I could relate to disability or the dispossessed.
This is not an argument for Labour’s former regime – I’ve previously commented that the 2017 manifesto was ‘pretty feeble stuff’ and the 2019 manifesto was mainly reactive. Labour may not have lost its way completely, but the lack of an agenda for public services, well-being or disadvantage doesn’t help to dispel the impression.
At the risk of being doggedly unfashionable, let me go back to Anthony Crosland in The Future of Socialism. Socialism was, Crosland explained, ‘a set of values, or aspirations, which socialists wish to see embodied in the organisation of society.’ Those values included empowerment, the progressive removal of disadvantage, and mutual responsibility: the ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ of the classic left. Many modern-day socialists would want to add the core principles of democracy and human rights. The Labour Party is a party of values, or it is nothing.