A history of campaigning for the welfare state

A guest blog by Rebecca Falcon (@RFalcon_) on a talk given by Roger Harding (@roger_harding) as part of the #changehistory series. You can listen to all the previous talks here and read previous blog summaries of them by clicking on the #changehistory tag at the bottom of this blog. 

As a single mum, Sarah has to juggle three jobs at once to provide for her son, but her low wages mean that if it weren’t for housing benefit she could still end up homeless. Down her street, Brian has had a hip replacement on the NHS and today his wife Beryl collected her pension from the post office next door.  Beryl noticed that her neighbour is home during the day again. She suspects he is cheating the system.

We all benefit from the welfare state, but holding on to taxpayer’s support for the system is no simple task. Support for benefits is only slightly higher among people who receive benefits than those who don’t, Shelter’s Roger Harding explains, and concerns about fraud and excessive taxpayer spending have been issues since Clement Attlee’s day when it all began.

In the latest History of Change talk on the Welfare State, Roger walked us through some of the lessons we can learn from the work by political parties, trade unions and issue groups to maintain the welfare state over the last seventy years.

He describes the longevity of the welfare state as a victory against the odds thanks to smart campaigning. These, he says, are the key lessons:

1) Big Change Doesn’t Happen overnight

Popular opinion may say that the NHS burst into life at the end of the Second World War, but in fact, it was the product of decades of campaigning by political parties and trade unions from the beginning of the 20th century.

2) This was a deal, not a gift

To win taxpayers’ support, and fund the welfare state, Clement Attlee introduced contributory National Insurance. Framing the welfare state as a project that we all pay into, based on responsibilities – not just rights or charity – helped to win over working and middle class voters.

3) Patriotism can unite people in common cause

Patriotism is a powerful driving force that can be used for good or bad. Campaigners for the welfare state tapped into post-war patriotism in the 1940s, selling the NHS and social housing as the best of Britain and a core pillar of our new post-war national identity.

4) Build solidarity across classes

Labour knew that working class voters alone couldn’t win general elections. By broadening the welfare state’s appeal to the middle classes, with some universal services and a contributory model, the project gained mass appeal.

5) With great [campaigning] power, comes great responsibility

Next was a warning to campaigners to learn from some of the single issue campaigns of the 1960s and 70s. The Child Poverty Action Group’s powerful criticisms of the disparity between rising wages and benefits played into the opposition’s hands. The opposition Conservatives used the pressure group’s evidence in a very political way in the next election. On the other hand, Harding spoke about CPAG’s success in the 1970’s to improve the child benefits system, by leaking minutes from a government meeting. The lesson is to be aware of your power and to use it responsibly.

6) Resistance works, if the cavalry is coming

In the 1980s, many councils refused to co-operate with Margaret Thatcher’s Right To Buy scheme. They believed that a subsequent Labour government would repeal her legislation. However, Thatcher’s continued success meant that in fact, by staunchly refusing to engage, they lost an opportunity to negotiate and improve the policy. Resistance can work, but you do need a chance of winning coming around the corner.

7) Responding to public concern can increase public concern

In the 1990s the government tried to build trust in the system with adverts warning benefits cheats that they were being watched. Although the action by the government did reduce levels of fraud, they didn’t receive credit for it as people thought fraud must have been widespread if the government were putting so much effort into advertising about it!

8) Don’t trash the brand

Criticising a government’s poor delivery of welfare policies can make people want to throw the towel in on the whole project. Nuance can be lost in the public sphere, so be careful about publicly criticising a system you ultimately support.

9) Learn from successes – contributarian and majoritarian

The NHS and pensions are amazing successes of the welfare state that we can learn from – both of which have record levels of funding today. Universal healthcare means there is no stigma associated with using the NHS, while the strong sense that pensions are contributarian has upheld public support (even though in reality pensions aren’t entirely contributory and actually the closest thing we have to a basic income).

10) Less ‘Saints vs Sinners’, more ‘Boringly Normal’

Studies show that painting people who will benefit as saints (for example focusing on pensioners and disabled children who receive benefits, who few people would object to the state supporting) can actually reduce public support for your cause. People think they are being misled if your policy sounds too good to be true. Better to describe those who will benefit as ‘boringly normal’, like the single mum who still needs housing benefit despite working as much as she can.

11) So many ideas to steal

Finally, we were reminded that the issues we face today are not new. We have a duty to look at the work of previous campaigners to understand what worked and what didn’t.

Some further reading suggestions

Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 – Tales of a New Jerusalem, Daniel Kynaston

The Five Giants – A Biography of the Welfare State, Nicolas Timmins

Citizen Clem – A biography of Attlee, John Bew 

Shelter’s analysis of current drivers of attitudes to welfare, Jenny Pennington

Historical analysis of support for welfare (second doc in this link), University of York for Shelter

•How to talk about inequality in a way that might actually fix it 

•A series of blogs on Shelter’s current campaigning pilots on welfare, Paul Donnelly and Tilly Williams

This entry was posted in Influence and networks, UK and tagged , by Kirsty McNeill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Kirsty McNeill

Kirsty McNeill is Save the Children's Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns. She was a Downing Street adviser for three years. She has written on politics, campaigning and international affairs for outlets including The Telegraph, Observer and New Statesman and is on the boards of the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. You can see more of her writing at www.kirstymcneill.com.