In October 1994, Tony Blair, then the freshly anointed leader of the Labour Party, launched Social Justice: Strategies for National Renewal, the final report of the Commission on Social Justice, an initiative begun two years earlier by his predecessor, John Smith. The Commission was hosted by the left-of-centre think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and was conducted at arm’s length from the policy-making organs of the party. The idea was that Labour would be free to, as Smith put it, “pick and choose” from the Commission’s conclusions, while the commissioners would be relieved of the obligation to draw up “a detailed programme of spending and revenue raising” (though they did in the end offer a number of detailed recommendations).
The extent to which the Commission shaped the policies subsequently adopted by Blair and Gordon Brown in government remains a matter of controversy, but the broad outlines of its attempt to rethink the relationship between rights of social citizenship and “economic success” were certainly discernible in a number of significant New Labour policies, notably the New Deal for the unemployed and the tax credits system. It remains to seen whether future historians of the Labour Party will be saying the same of the successor to the 1994 report, The Condition of Britain: Strategies for Social Renewal, a highly ambitious work of almost 300 pages co-written by IPPR’s director Nick Pearce with his colleagues Kayte Lawton and Graeme Cook, and launched earlier today in East London by Ed Miliband, who was accompanied by the man overseeing Labour’s policy review, Jon Cruddas, and the shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves.
Miliband’s remarks were heavily trailed in this morning paper’s, with much being made of his endorsement of IPPR’s proposed changes to out-of-work benefits for 18-21-year-olds. The report recommends replacing Jobs Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) for young people in that age group with a “youth allowance” conditional on looking for work or completing education. The allowance would also be means-tested and targeted at low-income families. Naturally, the lobby reads this as Miliband being “tough on welfare” (the latest British Social Attitudes survey showed no notable softening of attitudes towards the benefits system, despite the effects of recession, austerity and a decade of wage stagnation), but he insisted that Labour wanted to reform welfare in a way that was “progressive not punitive”. These and other proposals (IPPR also recommends the creation of a National Insurance Fund, financially independent from government, and raising the rate of contributory JSA) were, he said, intended to reassert the centrality of the contributory principle to the social security system: “Rewarding contribution was a key principle of the Beveridge Report. And it is a key intuition of the British people.”
There will no doubt be some rather refined technical discussions about the fine print of these policies as Labour drafts its manifesto for the next general election, and we shouldn’t expect them all to be part of its programme next May. But The Condition of Britain is as interesting for the philosophical shift in centre-left thinking that it signals as it is for its policy prescriptions (which, it should be said, are numerous and detailed), particularly where the capacity of the central state to deliver social-democratic goals is concerned (and indeed where the nature of those goals is concerned: the report looks beyond a narrow obsession with inequalities of income and wealth to a richer, more ramified vision of equality of power, agency and respect). “Despite the importance of government legislation and public action,” the authors write, “struggles for equality have rarely been restricted to the pursuit of a particular good, such as income or welfare; nor have they been confined to the boundaries of Whitehall and Westminster.”
We’ve already heard a good deal from Jon Cruddas, in particular, about Labour’s ambition to transform the relationship between central and local government, echoes of which can be heard in the report’s call to “put power in the hands of citizens” and its emphasis on durable institutions (many of them designed on a local scale), rather than cash transfers from Whitehall, as the vehicles of social reform. But whether The Condition of Britain amounts to what the commentator Mary Riddell has called a “Magna Carta” for Milibandism is another question altogether. And if even if it does, Labour still has to work out how to sell that vision to voters. Peter Kellner’s recent polling for Prospect suggests it hasn’t yet done so and time is running out.