Sources who’ve had sight of documents for the Lib Dem working group developing welfare policy report real cause for concern to Liberator.
After Tim Farron’s oft-repeated comment that the party shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for what it believes in, even if it makes 75% of the population hate them, as long as it makes the other 25% love them, there had been hope that policymaking would break from recent trends and seriously consider radical ideas. Alas, this appears to have been a hope too far according to our sources.
With the draft policy paper due by the end of the month, the agendas for the Social Security Working Group, chaired by Jenny Willott, are dedicated to multiple examinations in detail at specific areas of the current welfare system to consider how best to manage things.
Rather than consider a big idea as to what a Liberal welfare state would look like, the working group seems destined towards making many small suggestions on how to improve different benefits. But, while proposals to tinker with childcare provision and eligibility requirements for JSA might be worthy, they will inevitably be so detailed that no one will pay any attention to them. Once again, Liberal Democrat welfare policy will be without a big idea capable of grabbing attention.
Apparently big ideas such as Negative Income Tax, Basic Income and a Social Insurance system were considered at earlier meetings. However, no concrete decisions were made either way and all subsequent meetings have focused on tinkering with the existing system.
This is particularly concerning given the substantial levels of support in some sections of the Liberal Democrats for the concept of Negative Income Tax/Basic Income - one of the few issues that people on both the left and the right of the party can agree on. And certainly the concept of giving every citizen a minimum level of income with no strings attached is a radical one which would meet the “big idea” criteria.
Given the idea’s popularity it would be an absolute travesty if the party conference didn’t at least get a chance to discuss the concept or not. Unfortunately, however, given the working group’s current direction of travel it seems very unlikely to feature in the policy paper. If so conference won’t even have the option of discussing it.
Of course, in pre-coalition days one solution to this kind of issue where opinions were divided was for a working group to present two policy papers to the Federal Policy Committee so that the membership could make a genuine choice between two options. While this practice was largely abandoned under Clegg’s leadership in favour of insisting on a single, uncontroversial report from working groups, it is ripe for being revived.
If the working group were to do so then they may well be able to present party members with a choice between the tinkering-around-the-edges approach it seems to be on the verge of recommending and a radical, ‘big idea’ on welfare reform. That would certainly be best in terms of democratic policy making and escaping the old working group problem of only producing policy recommendations acceptable to their most small-c conservative members.
Whether this actually happens or not remains to be seen. But given the current schedule of meetings for the working group we wouldn’t hold our breath.