The responses to Ed Miliband’s attack on the long term unemployed today have varied. Many in the Labour party have quite rightly slammed him.

However, some have defended Miliband. Perhaps the most thoughtful such defence is from the Fabian Society’s Tim Horton, who writes in the Guardian about the founding principles of our welfare system. He tells us that those who are credited with building it – Beveridge and all – didn’t believe in a right to benefits. They believed in a contributory principle: that we should all pay in, and in doing so earn the right to take money out when we needed it.

He tells us that the way to ensure a sufficiently generous welfare state is to ensure it is not a conservative ‘safety net’, but system of social insurance into which we all pay in the knowledge that we all may one day claim: that we don’t want a benefits system on which so many depend to be contaminated by “the whiff of the undeserving poor”.

This misses a key point. Unemployment at the level we have had it in the UK since about 1975 is not a natural phenomenon. It is a creation of government policy.

(annotated graph courtesy of The Red Rock)

Late 20th century unemployment was created as a way to keep wages down (and so control inflation). It’s all very well to say that we ought to have a contributory principle. But government policy, by prioritising inflation over employment, requires that some people can’t get jobs, then how are they supposed to ‘contribute’? More specifically, much of the unemployment created in the Thatcher years, but never eradicated under New Labour, was structured geographically. Or, in other words, it happened in particular places. That means, if you live in one of those places finding a job is nearly impossible. It has been for a generation now. Who can blame these people for giving up trying? If our benefits system is broken, it has been broken not by the unemployed, but by unemployment.

I am willing to debate the theoretical merits and demerits of a contributory model of benefits. But at a time when it is effectively impossible for many people – many families – to ‘contribute’ (i.e. to find work), this is all think-tank abstraction. In practice, Miliband’s speech was just another attack on those who have suffered most from 35 years of neo-liberal policies.

By looking only at the welfare system without understanding its context in a neo-liberal economic system, Horton makes a classic New Labour mistake. And by citing polls to show that his arguments will persuade people, he makes another.

In the piece, Horton says:

“Recent Fabian polling found that, for those who believed claimants would make a contribution back to society, 49% thought we should spend more on benefits. But of those who didn’t believe claimants would contribute back, just 11% wanted to spend more.”

Therefore, he argues, Labour should push for a contributory model. Like so many Labour decisions since the days of Philip Gould, this governance by opinion poll is as damaging to popularity as it is to policy. Because it fails to understand the politics is not about individual policies. It is about the picture of society those policies help to create.

Ed Miliband may today have said things which were, in themselves, popular. But in doing so, he re-enforced a number of basic premises about the world: about the causes of the problems people suffer from, and about who is to blame for them. And in doing so, he helped drive the country to the right, and so into the arms of the Tories.

In order for the left to win, we need to unite those who are disenfranchised by the current system (most of us) against the organised power of those who have built it. As long as Labour encourage us to turn on each other, they can never change this country. And they don’t deserve to.

Adam Ramsay

About Adam Ramsay

Adam is Co-Editor of Open Democracy UK and a green activist based in Edinburgh. He co-founded Bright Green in 2010.