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The contributory principle: a two-way street

People who take out of the pot should have to put something in. Seems fair enough to me. I mean, there has to be the flexibility to accommodate those who, without fault, find themselves on the sharp edge of that rule of thumb, of course, but the root sentiment is laudable: we’re all in this together. We all contribute, then we are all justified in taking something out, when the need presents itself.

This, though put more plainly than the sophisticates in the thinktanks would like to put it, is essentially the contributory principle. And the contributory principle has become central to so many new political oeuvres of late that one can be sure that it is here to stay. We’re told that it was a mode of thought that informed the creation of the first welfare state, that it is the transgression of this principle that has led to people falling out of love with the welfare state, and that it is at the very root of much opposition to immigration, with people seeing immigrants using ‘our services’ without ever having contributed much, either economically or socially, to the creation of that system. The reasoning is plain enough: you haven’t put in; you have no right to take out.

And it is this principle that the lies at the root of much Tory rhetoric on welfare, with its ever-present slogans of ‘welfare scroungers’, ‘welfare junkies’, ‘ending the free ride’ and ‘dependency culture’.

The tone of debate has proven popular, of course, and though the label has been long dropped, it all forms what was once diagnosed as the ‘Broken Society’, an illness to which the Tories never really prescribed a cure.  The success is understandable, since in trading in such logic the Tories connect at the most basic level with the frustrations the general public feel toward the welfare system and the way it is, at times, abused. (This is a good thing by the way, since frustration suggests people still care, and is therefore much more preferable to indifference).

In the face of such rhetoric, the left often does one of two things; it wrings its hands, knowing it cannot possibly argue with such reasoning, before making a goalpost-shifting response about people who dodge tax (such as the Guardian, for example), or else they deny the problem really exists and revert to calling the Tories the nasty party, coming up with some suitably emotional anecdotal evidence to drive the point home. With such responses the left aren’t exactly wrong, but they’re not exactly right either, and people will generally have enough capacity to reason or experience to recall to tell them that each of these responses are far from convincing. Thus, the issue has become a stick with which the Tory party can hit the Labour Party – and the Labour Party are either forced to play along with Tory rules, or to accept their beating and appear out of touch.

Of course, some on the left may feel that these responses are entirely legitimate, since the issue of ‘tax-dodging’ is far more substantial to the Exchequer than any sum taken out by welfare ‘scroungers’ or benefits fraud.

But such a response is ultimately unconvincing because for many people it falls on the wrong side of the dichotomy between those who do not contribute and those who take out unfairly, a moral miscalculation that puts the left at odds with the general sway of public opinion. For whatever reason, the act of dishonestly making claims upon the system simply irritates more than the act of tax avoidance, a practice which, let us not forget, finds a home in state accredited savings schemes. For reasons not entirely clear, the moral code underpinning the system simply appears for most people to be more under threat by the dishonest claimant than it is by the people who shift their money around in order to avoid having to put so much in. Some on the left may not like that, but that’s just the way it is.

But it leaves one with the question: does the contributory principle, and all attendant notions of fairness and justice, not offer an alternative playing field upon which the left could mount their own charge and turn the tables on the Tories?

Well, I think so. After all, the nub of the contributory principle is this: if you put in, you’re well justified in being able to ask for some back. The challenge is zooming out from the micro level of specific welfare systems on to the societal level, spanning the horizon of lifetimes rather than those specific bouts of joblessness and need.  Labour should be acknowledging that fraudulently claiming on the welfare system is wrong, but with it offer the corollary to that very same logic, that those who have put a good shift in should be entitled to ask for a little something back. It should readily accept that relying on the welfare system when other options are available is an abuse of the system, but it should also use the same language to make the point that those who have avoided such reliance, who have worked a lifetime and paid their dues, shouldn’t have to die in poverty worrying about end of life care. It should concede that taking out of the system without genuine need is wrong, but it should maintain that by the same logic those who work hard shouldn’t have to live with constant insecurity, wondering how they will find the money to cover the rise in fuel and food prices.

In short, the ideals of fairness and justice that the Tories have come to own, couched in terms of contribution the system, should be the stick with which Labour hit the Tories, not the other way round. The very same language and logic that has Labour floundering on the back foot when Tories make populist (and entirely legitimate) political points about benefits ‘scroungers’, can also provide Labour with an opportunity to broaden out the horizons and say:  ‘well if true with welfare, then true in society at large’. The Tories like the contributory principle because it provides a narrative that allows them to appear morally literate in the eyes of the public, able to connect with common understandings of fairness and justice, yet without unduly affecting their own natural constituency. Labour should grasp that principle and use it make much larger demands on the Tories, on the way they are managing the economic situation, and on the consequences their decisions are having for people who have put into the system.

The days are gone when smug young lefties could just screech slogans at trendy rallies about social justice and expect everybody to sign up without thought or question. Labour, for whatever reason, is often seen at odds with the priorities, concerns, desires and expectations of ordinary people. To reverse this, Labour needs to root its response to Tory cuts firmly within the ideas and moral norms of ordinary people. Labour, therefore needs to grasp those narratives that have proved so popular for the Tories and begin to use their tools against them.

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