In This essay I will look at what is new about New Labour in regard to social policy. To begin a description of social policy is provided together with a brief history of the welfare state in Britain. A strong debate exists in social policy as to whether provision is about social care or control. This debate will be explored. The three prevailing political ideologies Social Reformism, Market Liberalism and the Third Way will be discussed in regard to social provision and their policies will be compared. Finally I will identify aspects of New Labour policies that establish it as a new way of thinking in regard to social welfare policy
According to Marsh (1979) social policy can be described as action on the part of the state or voluntary organisations to deal with the myriad variety of individual and social problems in a complex industrialized society. Marsh (1979) argues the state has, over the centuries, attempted to provide help to the poor, and to overcome many other forms of ‘social evils’ such as improving living and employment conditions, education and healthcare etc through legislation and voluntary action. Hill (1993) goes on to say that the study of social policy, in Britain, is primarily concerned with the extent to which the welfare state meets the needs of people and the extent to which it contributes to social equity.
During and after the Second World War social policy and its implementation began to develop into a highly significant and important area within the political realm. It was this period that gave rise to the welfare state and introduced legislation that brought about the:
“organisation of the educational system, provided family allowances, set up a comprehensive and integrated scheme of social insurance underpinned by national assistance, brought into being a national health service and assumed a greater responsibility for deprived children, the handicapped, the homeless and for providing better housing, industrial training and more employment opportunities” (Marsh:1979:17).
From this outline it can be argued that social provision is about care and a response to the social needs of a society. However,
“several recent discussions of social policy have suggested that welfare policies are promulgated not from humanitarian concerns to meet need but as responses to social unrest” (Hill: 1993:3).
Marxist arguments take this one step further and argue that social policies that promote welfare is a means of social control rather than care. Hill (1993) agrees with this argument and further argues that social policies are used to maintain order, buy-off working class protest and to secure a workforce with acceptable standards of health and education.
Hewitt’s (1998) response to this is that the government, when responding to society’s welfare needs must at the same time consider the needs of business and the government, needs which do not always coincide. Thus need is conceptualized, by governments of the day, in accordance with their political ideologies, and by the social and economic conditions that exist. From the arguments put forward it can be said that social policy is derived from a perspective of social care to address the needs within the society or as a means of social control so that an element of law and order can be maintained.
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The period from 1944 saw the rise of Social Reformism and with it the rise of the welfare state, beginning with the implementation of the Beveridge report, 1944 Education Act and the start of the National Health Service in 1948. Beveridge identified 5 giants that needed to be tackled, these being idleness, squalor, want, disease and ignorance. The Beveridge report outlined a government strategy to overcome these 5 giants.
“Under the Beveridge plan, poverty was to be overcome by means of a social security system that would provide benefits during periods when earnings were interrupted due to sickness or unemployment, and that ensured an income in old age through the state pension” (Piachaud:1998:234)
According to Pierson (1998) this period was characterised by consensus politics where general agreement existed in regard to the increase of social provision.
It is in this period more than any other that social policy focused on diminishing poverty and expanding welfare provision. The role of the state was interventionist with the underlying belief in universal provisions for all citizens. For the welfare state to survive it had to be subsidized through taxation which meant that full employment had to be maintained. It was through the Keynesian doctrine that economic and social solutions were explored to develop the post war welfare state.
By the 1970’s Keyne’s model was in trouble inflation rose, unemployment increased and support for social reformist policies was dwindling and moving towards a more right wing approach. In 1979 the Conservatives led by Margaret Thatcher came to power which saw the start of a new right wing, market liberalist political ideology. An ideology which shifted away from state provided welfare and towards, as Lister (2001) would describe, a more fragmented privatised and plural form of welfare.
The market, not the government, was seen as the primary provider of services, the state would be a secondary provider providing the basic minimum to those who are unable to access the market.
Thatcher’s policy reforms focused on privatisation of public corporations, income tax cuts and labour market reforms. According to Hewitt (1998) state welfare was pitched at an absolute minimum level to avoid giving out false signals that discourage individuals from making their livelihood through gainful employment.
“For this reason needs were defined in subsistence rather than basic terms, and welfare provisions are kept at a level that is residual to the market place” (Hewitt:1998:64).
Walker (1987) contends that the Thatcher government pursued a strategy of inequality. A strategy based on the premise of a trickle down effect where the rich are provided with incentives such as lower taxation. This would develop into entrepreneurial activity and boost growth and create jobs. Welfare benefits would be reduced making it less attractive, which would create incentives for the poor to work. This would ultimately boost economic growth.
Unfortunately such strategies had the opposite effect and led to massive inequalities, an increase in the amount of families living in poverty, and an increase from 8% to 25% in the number of people living on low incomes. Britain under conservative rule became a country where the rich got richer and the poor poorer.
In 1997, after 18 years of conservative rule, New Labour with Tony Blair at the helm took over. New Labour brought with it ‘new’ approaches and reform to social welfare. Piachud and Sutherland (2001) describe New Labour’s welfare reform as an overall strategy which aims to ensure paid work for those who can and security for those who can’t. New Labour’s principal aim was to reduce child poverty. With this in mind New Labour introduced a number of changes to the system of taxes and benefits for children such as working families tax credit, children’s tax credit, child benefit and income support. They have also introduced policies which aim to help groups that were previously marginalised and socially excluded such as lone parent families. Their policies have sought to provide lone parents with the opportunities to enter paid work by introducing the National Childcare strategy, which aims to ensure good quality affordable childcare and financial assistance, and also provided opportunities for further education for lone parents.
New Labour’s aim to reduce child poverty has had some success. Its policies have had an impact in reducing poverty. Unfortunately more still needs to be done as child poverty is still high. Beresford (2001), Lister (2001) and others commend New Labour’s Policies in its distribution to low income working poor and their children.
“The attack on inequality may still look small in comparison to the powerful economic forces at work but it does move in the opposite direction to nearly two decades of budget policy” (Glennerster:2001:402)
New Labour’s political ideology is today described as the third way a centrist approach to politics. It moves away from the old left social reformist doctrines of Labour as the electorate once knew. New Labour encompasses many features of Conservative and old Labour thinking. In regard to crime they promised in their 1997 election campaign to “be tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” (Tony Blair: 1996). A tough on crime approach evident by its introduction of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act which highlighted the punishment of offenders, this was reminiscent of the Conservatives. Similar to old Labour, New Labour promises to be tough on the causes of crime. The difference between old and new is the way in which they define the causes of crime. Old Labour stressed factors such as poverty, unemployment and racism in regard to causes of crime. While New Labour highlights the role of family, social and material deprivation as causes, racism is still an important feature.
Pantazis (2000) identifies closer similarities between New Labour and the Conservatives in regard to its policies on crime and criminal justice, but argues that New Labour’s policies have been far more progressive. New Labour’s introduction of the welfare to work scheme that aims to teach new skills and include into the workforce socially excluded groups, new deal for communities a neighbourhood renewal plan which places great emphasis on resident participation, sure start programmes aimed at children and families most at risk from poverty, and increased support for children from ethnic minority backgrounds. These and other programmes aim to target deprived areas and provide some evidence of New Labour’s progressive steps and their recognition of the links between crime and deprivation. One of the key principles to New Labour’s approach to social welfare is stakeholding and partnership; this is evident from Blaire’s policies and the implementation of such schemes. The principle being that
“individuals will better sustain their commitment to an enterprise, community or society if they feel that they have a genuine interest or stake in it” (Ellison: 1998: 41)
Ellison (1998) describes this as relationship between state and individual based upon a partnership where the state provides opportunities and it is the responsibility of the individual to make use of them. Thus the role of the state is to offer life chances rather than increase direct social provision. New Labour also highlights the importance of partnerships between business, communities and voluntary organisations if welfare reform is to successfully take place.
Evidence suggests that labour has incorporated a strategy which includes elements of social care; to address the needs of the society evidence of this is Labours attack on poverty, and social control, evidence being its Crime and Disorder Act 1998 which aims to maintain law and order. The heart of old Labour’s social policies was social care as opposed to the Conservatives which was social control. Labour has tried to incorporate positive features from both the Conservatives and old Labour and tried to expand on them to turn them into policies which are more progressive, manageable and cost effective.
This is a very new way of thinking as it does not lean towards a left or right wing perspective but chooses a centre approach, an approach which is more eclectic and open to what works. It tries to involve all the major stakeholders in the society from business, government, communities and individuals and regards the states welfare role as a facilitator. Thus the responsibility for provision does not just lie in the hands of the state but is the responsibility of the society as a whole. This being a complete break with past policies where under old Labour the state was the key provider of services and under conservative rule where provision of needs provided by the market.
In conclusion it can be said that New Labour has provided a new and progressive approach to social policy and reforming the welfare state in Britain. The most striking feature that separates New Labour from its predecessors is its willingness to work in partnership and the realisation that they cannot act effectively in isolation.
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