Willie Sullivan - Arguing for Universalism
Following the political debate over the weekend with Ed Milliband's speech at the Fabian Conference and particularly his appearance on the Marr show it seems that Labour in England might painfully be edging its way towards finding arguments for a Universal Welfare State and for progressive taxes.
As social security cuts bite including the cuts to child benefit this looks increasingly like the right time to do it. Interestingly enough this jars somewhat with where Scottish Labour sits. As I blogged recently, Johann Lamont, Labour leader in Scotland, has made universalism a key dividing line with SNP policy. She is saying Scots can't afford free prescription charges or free university tuition and particularly not for those who can afford to pay for them. She then went on to attack a something for nothing culture. Stand by and watch the Spectator, Tax Payers Alliance and the Telegraph pile in to get her back. These are unfamiliar voices in Scotland and they seldom get such an opportunity to shout here. In response to this debate the Jimmy Ried Foundation asked me to contribute to a report on Universalism along with Professor Paul Spicker, Professor Mike Danson and Reid Foundation Director Robin McAlpine.
The report, which has the strong support of trade unions, challenges directly the arguments that have been made against universal public services. It concludes that moving towards targeting and means-testing would have a negative impact on poverty, efficiency, economic performance and inequality.
The key findings of the report available here are:
• There is a well-documented 'paradox of redistribution' which shows that the best way to benefit low-income groups is to not target benefits at them but at the wider population.
• Moving from universal services and benefits to targeted ones create stigma, reduce take-up rates, causes enormous increases in administrative costs and eventually leads to less public support for services which in turn leads to significant decline in the quality of those services.
• Universalism cannot be separated from tax and redistribution; they are part of a system which has proved to be the most effective at promoting economic equality and ending poverty
• Universalism is incredibly efficient, more than 50 times as efficient in some cases on the basis of error and fraud alone without taking into account the cost of administration.
• Universalism creates a higher and more progressive tax base which also improves economic stability, reduces price bubbles and creates more efficient flatter income distributions.
• On almost all measures of social and economic success, international league tables are topped by societies with strong universal welfare states.
• In economic terms universalism is clearly shown to deliver Merit Goods (things we all benefit from) and Public Goods (things that could not be delivered without collective provision) which selectivity cannot deliver. It also creates positive economic stability by mitigating the swings in the business cycle and creating greater economic independence among the population. Also, the economic impact of universalism is larger than the economic impact of selectivity because of the multiplier profile of expenditure.
• Universal benefits promote gender equality and do not suffer form the inherent bias built into a system designed within a framework of assuming a male breadwinner model of welfare.
• Selectivity is not a form of universalism but the rejection of universalism. Selectivity is a cost-driven judgement, universalism a function-driven judgement, the former inextricably linked to US neoliberalism and the latter to the European Social Model.
• If all of the available data is pulled together and the conclusions drawn, the historical and contemporary evidence strongly suggests that the appropriate response to austerity is to increase universal provision and so stimulate economic activity, equalise damaging wealth disparity and improve both government and wider economic efficiency.
Willie Sullivan is the Compass Scotland Rep
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