Britain Debates: What Should European Welfare Look Like?

Article excerpt

On Tuesday, the British government pushed through a parliamentary vote to temporarily cap welfare benefits, setting down a dividing line on an issue that will be pivotal in determining who wins the UK's next general election.

But it also is the latest round of a struggle being played out across virtually every European nation facing the questions of what a welfare state should look like in the 21st century and how it can be subsidized in an era when the right (and many on the left) claim that dwindling resources mean traditional models are no longer affordable.

The bill, backed by the government's Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties coalition, caps annual increases in many benefits to 1 percent effectively a real-term cut as it is below the expected level of inflation and passed the House of Commons easily despite opposition from both the opposition Labour Party and even from some Liberal Democrat members of the governing coalition.

Domestic debate over dependency

The government paints the measure as necessary to fix an increase in benefits paid to supposedly work-shy shirkers over the past five years at a time when another group characterized as strivers have been unfairly shouldering the burden of paying taxes.

"Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbor sleeping off a life on benefits? asked Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne last year when the measure was announced.

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But critics charge that Mr. Osborne's imagery was a classic example of Conservative Party scapegoating of the poor, meant to play to a particular strata of voters fiercely fought over by the Tories and Labour. Labour points to analysis showing seven million working households will lose out by an average 165 ($265) annually under the plan. And Sarah Teather, a Liberal Democrat member of Parliament who lost her job as children and families minister in a reshuffle in September, also said she would be voting against.

"As a constituency MP representing a very deprived area in London, I feel deeply anxious about the policy and I will be voting against the bill... very reluctantly and with a very heavy heart," she told the BBC.

By ramping up the rhetoric ahead of today's vote, Britain's Conservative Party sought to exploit perceived associations between their Labour opponents and notions of an outdated welfare state. Drawing on focus group research, one recent Conservative election attack advert featured an image of a man on sofa watching day-time television and asked if the government should support hard-working families or people who dont work.

Polling last week also revealed that more than two out of five people believe that benefits were too generous, and three out of five buy into the idea that a culture of dependency had emerged. A British trade union umbrella body that commissioned the research said Tuesday that public support for measures such as the one adopted by Parliament was based on ignorance of who will suffer.

A European problem

But in many ways, the British debate over how to deal with its welfare state amid an economic crisis is par for the course in Europe and one that, according to the British government, the UK is handling better than its peers on the continent.

In Portugal, Ireland, and Greece, the three eurozone countries that have suffered most from the crisis engulfing the current zone, draconian cuts in welfare have been part of the bargain for IMF bailouts. France's newly elected Socialist president, Franois Hollande has meanwhile been preparing the French for major changes to one of Europe's most expansive welfare states, pledging to bring down the budget deficit to 3 percent this year and announcing that we must be ready to do better by spending less. …