John O’Donnell, Member of Glasgow Cathcart CLP says now is the time to “bin universalism”

I have read, watched and listened to the reaction of left wing commentators to Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls’ announcement that he would remove the winter fuel allowance from wealthy pensioners in a bid to save £100 million.johnodonnell

It would appear that this has ruffled the feathers of the left who consider universalism as a sacred cow that simply cannot be touched. They consider it to be unarguable and something that would end civilisation as it stands. Universality in the 1945-1951 government might have been admirable whilst fighting the big five (Disease, Ignorance, Want, Idleness and Squalor) and it has been a system adopted and defended by successive governments since then, both Conservative and Labour. We live in drastically different times, however, both politically and economically.

We spent in 2011-2012 on benefits approximately £160 billion from a budget of approximately £700 billion (I apologise but cannot find the exact figures for 2012-2013). This represents just under 25% of government spending. This is an outrageous amount and percentage and is completely unsustainable.

In my professional life I work as a Social Worker. I see the result of massive cuts in public spending, the impact of which, on the most vulnerable in society, is disproportionately staggering. As such, I am no friend of the government. But I also see people receiving state benefits who, financially, do no need them and who use them as additional pocket money for whatever they decide to spend their pocket money on.

A universal state pension may have been appropriate in the latter half of the twentieth century, indeed it was thought that the money paid in was invested for retirement, but we now know that contributions paid in go to pay the benefits of people now. The question I want to ask is: why should the state be paying a pension at all? Now there will always be people who require to be supported and any decent society worth its salt will always do so. Indeed Tony Blair often used the phrase ‘work for those who can and security for those who cannot’. I will always defend that, but why should a person who has the opportunity to plan ahead for 30 or 40 years, expect to rely on the government for a weekly pension? I spoke to someone recently who is in a steady job and who refuses to join an occupational pension scheme on the basis that the state will pay a pension upon retirement, whose rent and Council Tax will be covered and so there is no need to worry as the tab will be picked up by others. This is wrong on many levels.

Today on Radio Scotland a left wing contributor said that people who pay into the system need to know that they will get something out of it. I kept asking why? It seems there are some who feel that rights are stronger than responsibilities and I cannot and will not buy into this. It is the culture of dependency which is destroying the economy and the fabric of society. We need to support those who, for a range of reasons, cannot support themselves but we should not be supporting people who can.

As such, universalism has had it’s day. It needs to go and it needs to go now. By paying people who don’t need it, the money is not getting through to the people who do and that is wrong, politically and economically. It’s time to abandon the sacred cow that the Labour Party has been scared to address for many years. Ed Balls’ decision may only save £100 million but it has bigger significance. It should be the beginning of a conversation with the public that says we are going to cut back significantly on public spending to allow people and businesses to keep more of their money so that wealth and jobs can be created. In doing so it will send a signal that we are in the side of everyone, not just the few, the wealthy or the marginalised. In doing so, we can truly reflect the wishes and desires of the people and our ‘Campaign for a Labour Majority’ may be successful by the time of the general election in 2015


Follow John on Twitter: @f00tballreferee

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6 thoughts on “An end to universalism?

  1. once the principle of universalism is conceded, what next? How long until some argue that the rich should not get free NHS treatment? The start of a very slippery slop that will end with the ending of the NHS.

  2. or one keeps universalism and then include it in taxable income ,this would cost less to administer and would not have the deterrent effect of frightening off those who need the assistance but would be too proud or frightened to make a claim.
    Its administratively easier [and cheaper] to do this.
    Its about social solidarity which is horizontal rather than charity which is vertical

    1. Keith, I have no difficulty in social solidarity as long as it doesn’t cost anything. I would rather stand beside someone in solidarity knowing they received £100 per week beacise they needed it and I received £0.00 per week because I didn’t, rather than £50.00 per week each when one needs more and the other needs less. The former makes sense to me but the latter does not. As for horizontal versus vertical, I have never considered the welfare state as charity. I see it as the core of a responsible and civilised society based on socialist principles

  3. The point Keith is making is that ending universalism tilts the welfare state towards the vertical “charity” model away from what it is now. I liked the visual way he made the point and I agree the horizontal model is much more aligned to socialist principles like social justice, social cohesion and tackling inequality. Indeed, the seminal book on inequality “The Spirit Level” takes its title from this very concept.

    1. Using visual images is fine but I don’t think people really care whether a system is horizontal or vertical. What people care about is whether their taxes are going to go up, their services are going to go down or whether the reverse is true.

      I go back to my substantive post and my first response. It is economically and politically wrong to provide a state pension to everyone when some need it more than others, purely on the grounds of solidarity. It’s not the same as paying for a ticket to get into a concert or a football match.

      If you want to talk in the vertical versus horizontal abstract then fire away but most people couldn’t care less. We have a serious economic situation on our hands with more people living longer and less people coming through. Unless we seriously tackle this disparity between the two then we are simply creating an economic mess for future generations where services will be poor, taxes high, quality of life lower, inward investment lower, employment lower and unemployment higher, which would be disastrous.

      If people can plan ahead for their own retirement then they should. Responsibilities should be ranked higher than rights, which requires a paradigm shift in the mindset of our country. If we don’t do something radical we are going to end up in a complete finanical mess, which I would hope no-one wants to see us in.

  4. The universal provision of social services is by far the most cost effective and efficient way of providing these. A proper progressive taxation system makes this proper and fair. A UK mired in trying to bail out the bankers and fraudsters in the financial services in the South of England has lost all sight of important things and the ability to properly provide social services. The Labour Party has abandoned everything it ever stood for including a progressive taxation system and is presently fully involved in a national plot to save the financiers as the UK economy goes down the pan if they go down the pan. The rest of us are paying for this. I suggest Mr O’Donnell has a look at the Attlee government at the end of WW2 and the monumental success of it in rescuing UK from Debt while at the same time providing the welfare provisons which the Tories and their Labour chums are now destroying.
    Would you like me to write up an educational piece on the constructive
    and socially progressive policies that the Labour party used to align itself with as the Cathcart CLP on this evidence appears to be closer to Tories than to enlightened socialism

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