At The Heart of A New Welfare State

A new welfare state must be a welfare state that is easier to defend from injustice.

Last week I attended a very interesting meeting in Sheffield. The event was part of the farewell tour of the National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA). After ten years of campaigning for the voluntary sector to retain its integrity, its founders have decided to close down the organisation. I suspect many in the voluntary sector will breath a huge sigh of relief, for their message was robust and rarely welcome.

Primarily NCIA argued that the voluntary sector had abandoned its proper role and become complicit with the dismantling of the welfare state. This is not a recent problem, but it is certainly a problem that has become sharper today. Key elements in the decline of the voluntary sector include:

  • Taking over the work of public services - often by diluting or reducing the cost of those services.
  • Entering into a cosy relationship with Government - failing to challenge and advocate on behalf of the welfare state or of oppressed minority groups.
  • Accepting the nostrums of managerialism and becoming increasingly unequal and bureaucratic in form - aping the private sector.
  • Collaborating with the private sector (the likes of A4E, Serco and G4S) as they dismantle public sector services.
  • Abandoning respect for the principle of citizen action, even using labour from the dreadful workfare scheme - failing to keep volunteering voluntary

Andy Benson, one of the founders of NCIA challenged the audience. He argued that today the voluntary sector must choose between increasing compliance and ultimate irrelevance, or it must stand up for local communities and resist the temptations offered by government. I must say that my sympathies were largely with Andy, although with some caveats.

My own experience of this process began when, as ‘Contracts Director’ for Southwark Consortium we began negotiations with the NHS to take on their learning disability services. I do not feel bad about this. I think the nature of NHS services (and their image) was inconsistent with the ideals of inclusion and of empowerment. After all, it was the NHS that ran the institutions - not everything done under the banner of the ‘public sector’ is good.

I also spent much of my time working on systems and writing in an effort to ‘interpret’ the emerging purchaser-provider split in a way that could be empowering and innovative. This led to the publication of my book Unlocking the Imagination and the Citizenship Model. However, looking backwards, none of this was taken up. Instead the voluntary sector has become captured by the crazy world of tendering and commissioning. Power moved upwards, not downwards; and those in power rarely knew what to do with the power that they’d been handed.

Today I spend much of my time on campaigning work, trying to help people stick up for social justice and exploring how we might redesign the welfare state in a spirit of justice. 20 years ago I would never have believed that any Government could have attacked disabled people and those in poverty in the way that ours has over the last few years. I would have expected charity leaders to speak out, to get on the media, to resist these bad practices, in the strongest possible terms. However, as NCIA has correctly argued, this is not what has happened, instead:

  • Many in the voluntary sector have tried to use this moment to negotiate for an increased share of business as the state’s role is dismantled (a battle it is largely losing to the private sector).
  • Senior leaders tell me they cannot speak out because they will lose their place of influence at the table with politicians and civil servants.
  • Other say that the Lobbying Act ties their hands - they cannot both appeal for donations and appear as a ‘lobbyist.’

Whatever their reasons it is clear that many of the charities that are closely connected to Whitehall and Westminster are not prepared to resist. They do not think that this is their role.

Personally I am not sure what where we go from here. The last 5 years saw a bubbling up of important and innovative grass roots organisations: Justice for LB, Spartacus Network, New Approach, Pat’s Petition, WOW Campaign, DPAC and many others. These groups - in different ways - have used the internet and social media with great skill to mobilise support, draw attention to issues and offer thoughtful solutions. However none of us can yet call these efforts an outright success. On their own they seem to lack the necessary clout.

A slightly different technique, perhaps a hybrid approach, has been developed by Learning Disability Alliance England. Drawing together groups and individuals has enabled the communication of some powerful and radical messages, often with support behind the scenes from the more traditional organisations that are too fearful to speak out on their own. There is a power in numbers and in national and regional structure. However this is also, on its own, inadequate.

My suspicion, and I am still musing on this now, with no sense of certainty, is that we will need to try and pull off at least 5 difficult things at once:

  1. We cannot rely on a mere defensive or negative vision of the welfare state we want to protect - we need to be able to define and communicate a more powerful vision of a modernised welfare state.
  2. We need to organise around key groups and build creative alliances between these groups. For example advocates of the rights of people with learning disabilities need to make common cause with advocates for the rights of asylum seekers. But without merging the issues or obscuring different perspectives and ensuring that it is people themselves who lead the way.
  3. We need to build alliances with other parts of civil society. I still believe, some charity leaders can display the necessary courage to speak out, but they need to be part of a broader alliance. The churches have all offered some of the best resistance to date (although still very muted). Trade unions need to become important allies.
  4. Above all we need to avoid the temptation to demonise politicians or refuse to be political. Most politicians are not bad people, they want to do the right thing (while of course achieving power and glory). They are very sensitive to what ‘sells’ and what people ‘think they want.’ We live in a democracy (of sorts) and if we want a just welfare state we cannot be afraid to get political - to make friends - as well as the odd enemy.
  5. We do need to bring in the big numbers - the people. Petitions have been a good way of doing this to date, but these are at their most effective on relatively simple issues. Politics is about the people, not just the ‘elites.’

The first task if of course critical. It is near impossible to build any alliance if there is no shared vision. But building an alternative, positive and inspiring vision for the welfare state in the twenty-first century is far from easy. Especially when power and money is poured into developing the kind of bastardised version of welfare reform that is now on offer.

However one positive starting point may be this. A new welfare state must be a welfare state that is easier to defend from injustice and in which civil society plays an active part. In other words, by trying to fight for justice now we will learn what it takes to protect and sustain a just welfare state into the future.

In a sense the voluntary sector should be the beating heart of a new welfare state, capable of speaking out and keeping us true. Redesigning the welfare state, in a spirit of justice, means getting that heart beating and ensuring that it can beat strongly into the future. So, in the process of fighting for justice and resisting the attacks on the welfare state we must also build a voluntary sector, or more broadly, a civil society, that is capable of keeping the welfare state true in the future. That will be a different kind of civil society - a living 'constitution' for the welfare state.

I hope then that the work of NCIA is not in vain. If they lay down the torch now then others of us must pick it up. But when we do so we must see ourselves as not just defending something in the past, but as building something anew.