After four successive electoral disasters this summer, Gordon Brown is desperately casting around for the next big idea to convince voters – and his own party – that he still has something to offer.
Here's one: get more welfare recipients – especially single parents and those with mild disabilities – to go back to work.
It's not exactly a new idea. Over the past 11 years, the Labour government claims to have helped a million people back into work through various carrot-and-stick programs for young people and the long-term jobless. But more than 10 percent of Britain's potential workforce remain on welfare. Only 57 percent of single parents have jobs, compared to as many as 80 percent in countries like Sweden and Denmark.
And a report released last year said that less than a third of the 2.7 million claiming disability benefits were genuine. The government clearly believes now that there is social justice – and votes – to be had from tackling this conundrum.
True, tough-love measures might impress hardworking taxpayers sniffy about the welfare state, who are deserting Labour in droves. But the reforms also risk alienating core supporters who believe Labour should be about defending the underclass, not punishing it.
"At a time of increasing unemployment, such draconian measures will not only prove counter-productive, but the requirement for forced labor and the greater harassment of disabled people is a moral disgrace," says John McDonnell, a Labour parliamentarian on the party's left.
Drawing from models in Wisconsin
With one eye on a creaking welfare budget and another on its own plunging popularity, the government last week unveiled striking plans to encourage and/or cajole single parents and people on sickness benefits into work.
"This is about ensuring that no one is written off," says a government official familiar with the plans. People, he says, want to work. Children can be lifted out of poverty if mom gets a job. Idleness and dependency are bad for both welfare recipient and the state.
And so, drawing from experiences and programs as far removed as Wisconsin and Scandinavia, ministers believe they can get hundreds of thousands of people marginalized by circumstance, incapacity and, yes, indolence, into jobs.
But the proposals, which would save billions of pounds at a time of budgetary need and could prove a vote-winner for a government reeling towards oblivion at the next general election, are controversial.
The idea would be to step up the requirements on those out of work to actively seek jobs – or risk losing their welfare checks. Procrastinators could find themselves forced to do menial tasks like picking up litter or scrubbing graffiti off walls in order to continue to qualify for benefits. Anyone jobless for more than two years would have to work fulltime in the community to qualify for continued support.
Only parents with children under 7 and the chronically ill would be exempt from the requirement to actively seek work. Drug addicts will not get payments unless they stick to treatment programs.
Some progress since 1997
The numbers show that Labour has a long way to go to complete the welfare-to-work programs started in 1997. Then, there were 5.5 million benefit claimants – half of those on incapacity welfare. That number has been reduced to 4.5 million (from a total potential workforce of around 40 million), but there are still 2.7 million incapacity claimants and another 800,000 lone parents on the welfare rolls.
Middle England, that broad belt of the mildly conservative middle class has long since tired of watching its tax-pounds wash up in the pockets of those considered "benefit cheats": the golf-club regular who pays for his membership out of a disability allowance; or the young single mother who supposedly has children simply to get somewhere to live and a modest state income.
"With the strong economic recovery of the past 10 years and the increasing availability of work, people's mood has changed to be less sympathetic," says Professor Paul Gregg, a welfare expert at Bristol University in southwest England.
But critics say that hurrying someone into a job will not spirit away Britain's poverty problem. Martin Narey, chief executive of children's charity Barnado's, says that half of all children classified as poor in Britain actually already have a parent in a job. "High costs of child care, paired with the very low level of minimum wage, means that for too many a job is not a route out of poverty," he argues.
Barrier: child-care costs
Child-care issues appear insuperable when, as in the US, there is simply no obvious congruity between hours of school and hours of work. The Wisconsin welfare reforms claim success in reducing welfare claimants, but have been criticized for leaving lone parents bewildered about what to do with their children while they are at work.
The other major question mark is that the reforms are coming at a time when Britain, like much of the Western world, is heading into an economic downturn. Tony Lever, a manual worker currently "between jobs" shakes his head as he emerges from a job center in southwest London.
"In reality there isn't [sic] enough jobs to go round. If it came to pass that we all had to do it, so be it. But what about the council worker who is cleaning up litter? Will he become redundant?"
Others fear that the broad brush trying to sweep benefit claimants into work will not be able to differentiate between who is cheating the system and who is genuinely unable to work.
Emma Joseph, another job center claimant, says: "Some people get stuck in a rut and work would be good for them. But I don't see how you can get sick people to work. Some of my family are in incapacity benefit with mental problems. I don't think you could make them work."