Migrant benefits debate highlights need for a bigger conversation

Today Prime Minister David Cameron outlined the Coalition’s proposals to introduce controls on welfare benefits paid to migrants from the EU.  (See the BBC report)

The debate about welfare entitlements for immigrants seems a proxy for the kind of conversation we should be having about our benefits system as a whole.

During the National Conversation on Britain’s welfare state we kept returning to the issue of  contribution.  We found people were concerned about others getting ‘something for nothing’.  Not because they resented paying for it, more because they worried it fed a dependency culture.

The political classes are now talking about how migrants need to contribute to the UK welfare system before they can access public services and support.  But we haven’t yet begun the big conversation we need on building a fair and affordable welfare system.

“Struggling to get a grip, as with soap in a bath”

A great quote from Hugo Rifkind in The Times (29th January: £) which neatly sums up where politics, politics and our institutions are today:

“In the past couple of years, as everyone knows, almost every aspect of [the] Establishment has taken a bettering and our traditional deference, if it ever had any rationale, doesn’t any more.  But without deference, representative democracy becones a harder sell, particularly when the public suddenly have the online tools to shout at you all the time, rather than just once every four or five years as in the past.

At the moment it’s an almost impossible sell. Like newspapers, like the BBC, like the churches and the schools, and everything else, our system of government is in the midst of an existential crisis of confidence.  It doesn’t know what it is, or what it’s for, or what people want from it.  So it has to ask.  This is how I think we ought to understand our referendums, whatever they are about.  As the latest manifestation of a panicked system grappling with itself.  Struggling to get a grip, as with soap in the bath.”

Seen and heard…

The National Conversation is about tackling the growing gulf between people and politicians, and countering cynicism about mainstream politics.

We are casting the net as wide as we can to find fresh ideas, and we’ll share them on the blog.  Here are the some of the things that got us thinking this week.

  • “Can we all get along?” Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind begins with an appeal from Rodney King, the man nearly beaten to death by four LA police officers in 1991, a notorious event that would trigger the riots of the following year. Haidt draws on insights from moral psychology to help conservatives and progressives find common ground.  David Goodheart’s review in Prospect Magazine gives a compelling overview.
  • Was 2011 a new dawn for people-driven politics – or business as usual?  Paul Mason, economics editor for BBC Newsnight, gives a passionate account of how networked technology is empowering people and challenging everything we thought we knew about politics in Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere.  See Andy Beckett’s review in The Guardian.

Let us know if anything catches your eye, via the comments or The National Conversation web site.