I said a few days ago that the spirit of James Purnell lingers over the welfare debate in Britain. Well,
you can now scratch out "spirit". The real-life, corporeal version of Purnell is giving a speech in Australia today — and, judging by its write-up in the Guardian, it is one that should have some resonance on this side of the planet. This is not
just an address by a former Labour MP on where his party should go next — although it is partially that — but also the staking out of new ground on welfare policy. Whether you agree
with it or not, it deserves some attention.
So what does Purnell say? Much of it is a straight disavowal of New Labour’s money-centric approach to welfare and poverty. "In the name of helping the poorest," he argues, "we’ve
thought too much about what people get out of society and not enough about what they put in. Too much was to be solved from the centre." After a decade of Brown rattling on about state
"investment," there’s something refreshing about such rhetoric. But it is not, in truth, particularly radical. Even Ed Miliband appears to have accepted that funnelling cash towards the needy was not the answer New Labour thought
Far more intriguing, then, is Purnell’s discussion of a welfare system based around the "contributory principle". The general idea behind this is familiar: link what people get out of the
system more closely with what they put into it. But Purnell extrapolates from there to suggest just when people should "get", and just when they should "put in". As he explains
"When people lost their job, they would want to get a proportion of their previous wages for a few months. If they hadn’t found work, they would like to be guaranteed a job. That might
sound fantastical, but it’s what Germany and Britain did in the last recession. People would want a guarantee of housing, of a pension in retirement, of good parental leave and pay. That is the
kind of welfare state that they would actually fight for, rather than treat with indifference…
…Such a welfare state would explore how we can bring back the contributory principle — how what people get out relates better to what they put in. And it would say that people
couldn’t refuse to help themselves — that the job guarantee would also be a job requirement. If anyone turned it down, they would lose their benefits."
And he goes further still. If the state, on his account, should be ready to step in during times of crisis or upheaval, then it should also withdraw from areas where it makes less of a
difference. For instance, Purnell suggests funding his system, "out of the cash transfers and universal benefits [that claimants] value much less and which are insufficient in times of need, but
marginal when things are going well." Which is to say, scrap the universal benefits that people don’t need — and direct the money towards benefits that they might.
In fact, it is that final point that stands out the most. Although we haven’t really seen the vicious divide over universal benefits that this Parliament promised, Labour are still minded towards defending them against cuts on both the national and local level. What
Purnell appears to be urging is another divide on universal benefits — but one where Labour are on the opposite side, calling for them to be cut and the money used more effectively elsewhere.
This is thinking that Ed Miliband might want to subscribe to. Because, if he doesn’t, you can bet that
his brother will.