Three recent books engage with the challenges of building institutions that can deliver real social security and empower people as workers and citizens. Relationality and localism will be key to this, but we must not lose sight of the need for a strong central state too.
Chris Renwick, Bread for all: The origins of the welfare state, Allen Lane, 2017.
Hilary Cottam, Radical help: How we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the welfare state, Virago, 2018.
Virginia Doellgast, Nathan Lillie, and Valeria Pulignano, eds., Reconstructing solidarity: Labour unions, precarious work, and the politics of institutional change in Europe, Oxford University Press, 2018.
We live in precarious times. From the much-publicised employment practices of the new platform giants to the social care sector, the growth of precarious and exploitative work is never far from the headlines. Precarious work translates into precarious lives. Household debt continues to rise towards pre-financial crisis levels, and new forms of short-term, high-cost credit have proliferated. Indebtedness and insecurity feed into our growing mental health crisis. (1) At the national level, after a decade of sluggish growth dependent on soaring personal debt, Britain's economic model increasingly seems to have run its course. Reflecting all of this, our electoral system has not produced a single-party Government with a stable majority for thirteen years. Global and domestic political instability is coming to be accepted as a new norm.
Are the institutions which should be addressing these problems--our welfare state, most of all--equipped for providing the security and power which working people need in precarious times? As has been noted within the pages of Renewal, an 'institutional turn' is taking place in politics. (2) On the Left, this must in large part be understood as a reaction against the impermanence of many of New Labour's achievements. The last Labour Government too readily accepted the rules of the game, while compensating the losers through a centralised programme of redistribution. Many of the gains made between 1997 and 2010 were vulnerable once growth slowed and the Conservatives returned to office. As Ben Jackson recently argued, Labour must escape the 'cycle... of Tory cuts followed by Labour spending followed by more Tory cuts.' (3) An institutional approach--focused on entrenching incentives towards responsible behaviour in, for instance, structures of corporate governance, and in supporting the flourishing of strong autonomous institutions--is increasingly seen as the solution. In different ways, three recent books engage with the challenges of institution-building.
Chris Renwick's Bread for all offers a highly readable account of the evolution of the ideas which eventually underlaid the creation of the post-war welfare state. Renwick surveys various currents among Britain's intellectual and political classes which led to the acceptance of a more interventionist state, universal services, and social insurance. Rightly, he stresses not one transformational individual or event--depression, war or election--but rather, the gradual 'maturing of a particular set of ideas about the relationship between individuals and the state, not to mention the state and the economy, which had been developing for more than a hundred years'. (4)
Renwick's book speaks to the extraordinary capacity of British liberalism (small and, for a period, large L) to absorb ideas and impulses separate to it, including those challenging its most basic premises. This included not just progressive or egalitarian ideas, critical of the unjust outcomes of unfettered markets, but dangerous ideas like eugenics. In Beveridge and Keynes, Liberalism played an outsized role in shaping Britain's welfare state, which concentrated substantial power in the hands of men like Beveridge and...