By Chris Pierson
In a series of four linked posts, Professor Chris Pierson looks at the politics of the welfare state over the period of the last parliament in the context of the upcoming election. Since our political classes are asking the wrong questions, they are likely, he concludes, to come up with the wrong answers.
Questions of welfare loom large in the 2015 General Election. But the contest we are witnessing is a strange one. The main UK parties fall over themselves to pledge their commitment to increase resources for the NHS, to protect spending on state education, to uprate the incomes of pensioners and to promise to build hundreds of thousands of new homes, in much the same way that a magician produces rabbits from a hat. At the same time, they all suppose (to very varying degrees) that the budget for ‘social security’ or ‘welfare’ can be (and should be) cut or capped. The ‘good’ bits of welfare are to be funded at least in part by screwing down on the ‘bad’ bits. But if we really want to understand what is happening to the welfare of people in Britain today, we need to raise our eyes a little higher and to widen our vision. We need to consider a much broader political economy of welfare and to recognise that the welfare state, to use that old-fashioned term, is best understood as part of a broad and complicated apparatus for the distribution and redistribution of costs and opportunities, in which government has a central role. Looking backward, government action since 2010 has systematically disadvantaged the young and the poor. The challenge for the welfare state now is not to find still more ways of cutting costs, but rather to think of ways of reversing this trend in the face of the real challenges arising from demographic change and a globalized economy.