In his “radical rethink” of Britain’s benefits system in “A William Beveridge for this century’s welfare state“, the Labour Party’s Liam Byrne has produced a spectacular and instructive example of the failing of contemporary politicians to understand how the human mind works, and consequently to understand how to do politics.
The lessons we can draw from it show how values, not policies or issues or attitudes, are the real framework behind how voters think, and the real key to understanding them, communicating with them and changing society for the better.
It also shows us how the Labour party is not only mimicking the Conservatives in a way that will only harm them and society, but how it is dangerously close to engaging in hate speech.
In what is apparently the first in what will be a series of sermons on how Labour has “got it wrong”, Byrne pursues a familiar theme: that the left is too soft, that they don’t understand what ordinary people think (according to polls), and that the left must essentially be more like the right. He mollifies this message with occassional caveats about when right-wing is “too” right-wing, but the message is familiar and unmistakable in its Blairite simplicity.
Unfortunately our analysis shows it will do the exact opposite of what Byrne and the Labour party are hoping. It will further entrench right-wing values, it will entrench the position of the Conservative party, and it will turn Labour into what (they say) they hate most.
And the reason is Byrne and the Labour party’s misunderstanding of human values and human psychology, leading them to make critical mistakes in their political thinking.
Let’s break down Byrne’s article in Monday’s Guardian, with reference to the Guardian’s own comment on it by their political editor Patrick Wintour.
Byrne claims the benefits system has “skewed social behaviour”. It might well have done. No evidence is offered for this. But here at the Green Words Workshop we understand that evidence is less important to the way the human brain works than what people are told by other people. And when the Labour party tells Labour people that this is true, they are helping make it true, in people’s minds, with or without evidence. The words create the reality. Words are so much more important than people generally think.
Byrne argues that the “ballooning of the system” has provided support that is “unearned”, and mislaid the original ideal of providing help to those that contribute. Byrne also claims the party must recast the welfare state to meet the original intentions of its founder, William Beveridge.
Apart from the potential for historical revisionism, since Byrne does not make any real reference to Beveridge except simply invoking his name, Byrne’s words point to a clear and familiar modern-day stereotype: that of the undeserving welfare cheat. We’ve heard this for many years: from Blair, from Thatcher, from Reagan and from the current Labour leader, Ed Miliband.
In a Guardian comment last year Lynsey Hanley criticises Miliband’s cynicism on welfare, saying “The age of the deserving and undeserving is back, it seems, except this time blaming the poor is made alright by blaming the rich. Only in the squeezed middle are you safe from scrutiny: you are the ones who “do the right thing”, “give back”, “play by the rules” – and any other cliche you care to have flung at you”.
To flesh out this stereotype, Byrne piles on other words, taking Beveridge’s name in vain:
“[Beveridge] never foresaw unearned support as desirable”.
“[Beveridge] wanted a responsible workforce too”
“[Beveridge] would have wanted reform that was tough-minded, and asked everyone to work hard to find a job”.
Invoking Beveridge’s name in this way, with no evidence offered for why Beveridge might have thought one thing or another, is akin to a preacher interpreting what God might want. And since we can’t ask either Beveridge or God directly, the preacher is able to say whatever they want without being contradicted. But we can certainly say that Beveridge and Byrne have worked in completely different ways. Beveridge’s actions were to institute a massive, country-wide, decades-long organised revolution in state planning that has provided shelter, education, health, sanitation and work for hundreds of millions of people. Byrne’s actions have been and will continue to be saying things; things that publicly denigrate poor people. If he ever gets a shot at being in charge, he might upgrade his actions to withdrawing actual support from poor people too, without putting anything helpful in its place. Hardly a William Beveridge for this century.
But words do matter, not only because they form the basis of action, but because they shape and create the way people see the world. And Byrne’s words show us quite clearly that he thinks in the same way about people on benefits as the Tories do, and by using this framing he is encouraging everyone else to think in that way too.
He perpetuates the idea that some people are just simply undeserving, and deserve to be cut-off from society’s support. This is a moral claim that is compatible with what we call Authoritarian right-wing morality not with progressive Nurturing left-wing morality. The problem is that it is not just a comment on society, it is a seed, a linguistic seed that allows the cutting-off (the neural inhibition) of empathy, of sympathy, of trust, of imagination, loyalty and curiosity. It substitutes condemnation for understanding, and attacking for caring. It multiplies itself, in every day conversations, in textbooks, on the TV, and it breeds in your mind, eating your better impulses of affection. It is practically unlimited in its destructive power. And once deployed it is not a weapon you can target discreetly; it attacks all without discrimination and undermines the moral, linguistic and cognitive basis of people being nice to each other. And people being nice to each other, as basic as that sounds, is the foundation of all society. This is the power of these values systems, and the power of the words that Byrne is throwing around.
The very assumption that some people can be “deserving” or “undeserving” as part of their innate “character” is itself a right-wing idea based on the folk-theory of moral essence, again, a misunderstanding (by the Right) of the way the human brain and human beings work. A commentor to the Guardian article, wasthenstillam, parodies it amusingly:
“As with so many Labour politcians, you clearly believe in a subspecies of the feckless and idle who do nothing but walk around all day with their hand out asking the hassled taxpayer to fund their life. No doubt, such people do exist but you seem to suggest that the way benefits have “skewed social behaviour” those in receipt suddenly experience some kind of biological change that makes them expect something for nothing. I assume you’ve never been unemployed”.
The Guardian’s political editor Patrick Wintour tells us that “Byrne, appointed by Miliband last year, believes the centre ground of politics has shifted to the left on issues such as bankers and equality, but that most voters, including traditional Labour supporters, still want a tough line on welfare”.
It’s undoubtedly true that many Labour voters “on the doorstep” habour Authoritarian views. Wintour tells us that “Most polling shows the Conservatives enjoy a strong poll lead on welfare”. But it is a misunderstanding of human psychology and values to think that the correct response is to validate those values and appeal to them. Psychologically that is called “activation”, and activating right-wing values is the last thing the Labour party wants to do. When it comes down to it, the Conservative party will always be more successful in activating and capturing the benefits from right-wing values: that’s their speciality. Labour and Democratic politicians accepting and activating fundamentally right-wing values are the basic cause of British and US society having moved to the right in the last three decades.
Politically, this approach of pandering to unhelpful existing values rather than changing them is called Blairism. It does not propagate Labour values; it identifies – through polling – values that a particular section of the population holds, and involves saying whatever will appeal to them. That was the genius and the achilles heal of the Blairite revolution of Tony Blair, pollster Philip Gould and Peter Mandelson. At first it seems clever, and follows the successful techniques of consumer marketing, but it is the opposite of leadership.
The Blairite approach of polling people on issues and then appealing to the them on those issues also misunderstands how values work. You cannot “be left wing on bankers and right-wing on welfare”. You just end up being right wing, because you’re activating values of condemnation, resentment, mistrust and punishing.
Furthemore, Byrne’s speech is not just “a little” right-wing. Upon analysis, it’s very close to hate-speech. Consider:
“For [Beveridge], “idleness” was an evil every bit as insidious as disease or squalor. So he would have been horrified at the long-term unemployment breaking out all over Britain, with over a million young people without work, and appalled at the spiralling cost of benefits”.
Look at the language used here. First there is the associative connection of “idleness” with disease and dirt. Then Byrne tells us unemployment “breaks out”. This is unemployment not as the responsibility of government, which is surely how Beveridge (a centralised planner) understood it, but unemployment as a disease, that breaks out like the mumps, the measles, or the plague. He then tells us this is something to be “horrified” and “appalled at”, telling us that the correct reaction to those unemployed people “infected” with the disease of unemployment is not sympathy, care, therapy or healing, but isolation, quarantine, and visceral and moral disgust and contempt. And indeed, punishment.
Comparing human beings to infectious disgusting disease-carriers is hate speech, however off-handingly used or however sandwiched between less-extreme statements, and it is a sad indictment of the state of British politics today, and how close political discourse has moved not only to the right, but towards fascism.
Beveridge, we think, we not have thought it appropriate because although Beveridge, to our reading, was undoubtedly an authoritarian, the concern of his reforms was not trying to read into people’s “character” to seperate the “deserving” from the “undeserving”, but to provide a physical planned system of full-employment and a huge range of social protection for everybody.
Byrne argues that Beveridge had never constructed his system to accommodate extended mass unemployment. But of course he hadn’t: Beveridge’s system was fundamentally designed to eliminate mass unemployment and create “full employment” of at least 97%. Individual action was not the point: Beveridge accepted that it was the government’s role to plan for people to be employed.
Byrne argues that “[Beveridge] wanted a responsible government taking determined action to create work, but a responsible workforce too.” But we know by now where Byrne and any future Labour government would put the emphasis: 100% on the individual responsibility of the underemployed person, and 0% on the responsibility of the government to create a society where people have meaningful employment.
At root, Byrne’s whole intervention is an essay on the theme of “the problem with the benefits system is a lack of individual responsibility”. That is the only real frame he invokes. He doesn’t offer any change of government policy at all, for example controlling rents to tame the “spiralling housing benefit budget”, as if the price the government has to pay in housing benefit is down to the selfish people who want a roof over their head, rather than the landlords into whose bank accounts the rent monies are ultimately going. He offers nothing at all in the way of stablising the financial bubble mickey-mouse economy, or halting the flight of British manufacturing to overseas. Byrne’s emphasis is all on the “individual responibility” of the unemployed person. And that makes his position, by definition, not left wing, but right wing.
Byrne’s contribution is not a radical rethink of anything. It is a completely ordinary everyday expression of right-wing values, and an appeal for those values to be adopted further.