Housing, the welfare state and the new politics of virtue

The 2011 Labour party conference may be best remembered as a turning point, when Ed Miliband began to assert his radical version of Britain’s future.  Many commentators have already fixated on the phrase “not anti-business, anti  business-as-usual.” In contrast, Miliband’s reiteration of Labour’s plans to marry eligibility for social housing to individuals’ contributions to society, has been overlooked as a smart tactical move, or misinterpreted as an attack on the working class.  In truth, the essence of Miliband’s radical vision, and his support for working and middle class people, is rendered most vivid when analysing this particular policy.

A ‘contribution to society’ could simply mean having a job, but community action and charitable deeds could also weigh in and increase the likelihood of being placed.  The reason that there is political capital in challenging the criteria used to assess social housing eligibility is twofold.  The most basic reason is the severe shortage of housing stock throughout the country.  In just over a decade house building has fallen from a third to 5 per cent of all building in Britain.  We build fewer houses each year than almost anywhere else in Europe and have been missing building targets for fun for many years now.   The first role of the government in this area must be to devise effective ways of tackling this extreme lack of supply.  To their credit, the coalition government claim they are doing this with a raft of policies announced aimed at loosening planning regulations, and incentivising house-building projects.

Scarcity then, creates the problem, but the perceived injustice of the system created in light of the shortages is just as troublesome.  Perhaps influenced by some of the more scandal-happy sections of the media, the right of the Conservative party, or even just because it is simply the case; a perception has arisen that many people who are entitled to social housing (and other benefits) receive them unfairly.  They are usually depicted as either fit to work and not doing so because the system allows them not to, or deliberately defrauding the government.  The actual prevalence of people of this type is undoubtedly very low, but a relevant grievance does exist; which is that the allocation of social housing is based on a fairly simple calculation that takes account of relative need but nothing else. Having children raises your eligibility, as does being unemployed.  It is easy to see how those who receive social housing can be perceived by those who lose out as irresponsible or lazy. If somebody who works hard for very little, and does not have children because they can’t afford them, is told that the state cannot help them, but sees others who have not made tough choices being given a lot, then resentment can breed rapidly.

What makes this debate particularly interesting, are the philosophical principles that are clearly at play.  It is rare in modern political debate that philosophy comes so close to the surface, as deliberation tends to centre on legal, fiscal or other even more technical factors.  This is not so with housing and the welfare state.  The current system, based purely on need, is aimed at making things better for the worst off in absolute terms; so those who have the least money, or the most dependents for example, receive the most from the state – i.e get the house.  This is a very mathematical approach to society, in that it does not account for anything outside of how ‘well-off’ people are relative to each other.  This is a Marxist idea, encapsulated in half of his famous phrase describing an ideal communist society “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

What Marx’s view lacks is any solid conception of deservingness. People do not have to earn what they get under his view and this is at odds with the meritocratic principles upon which a fair Democracy must stand.   The idea that benefits or social housing should be a reward goes back to Beveridge and the incarnation of the Welfare state.  But it is also very Aristotelian because it claims that the relative virtue of individuals ought to be assessed, along with need, when allocating a benefit.  It is with this idea of virtue that the Labour Party are seeking to reinvigorate the system of social housing, as well as the wider welfare state.

In April, former Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell began to promote what he has termed the Protection State.  On his view, what people get out of the welfare state in benefits should better match what they contribute to it. He is sceptical of universal benefits and cash transfers and favours offering people things like job guarantees, childcare and housing in return for their contributions.

Purnell’s idea is a powerful one, and attempts to reconcile our intuitive desire to fulfil needs and reward virtue on an extremely wide scale.  Ed Miliband has embraced this idea and will attempt to push it further.  His plan for big business has very similar hallmarks, as he hopes to reward ‘grafters’ rather than ‘predators’ through tax breaks and other incentives. As I mentioned earlier, there has been much written and said since Ed Miliband’s speech about his challenge to the neo-liberal moral economy, dominant in Britain since Thatcher.  It is important to note that consideration of virtue in British policy-making is at the root of this paradigm shift.  If Miliband’s project is to be successful, then it will probably triumph on a number of fronts, for he has begun to weave virtue ethics into the very fabric of his party and his policies.

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Posted on October 2, 2011, in Coalition Government, Comment, General, Labour Party, Party Politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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