The National Conversation is not about finding consensus – but rather common ground where people can come together to have grown-up conversations that generate more light than heat.
When we looked at the welfare issue in autumn 2012 – and once we got past partisan rhetoric – we found many people worried that the idea of contribution had slipped out of the welfare debate.
So it’s interesting to see two major papers – The Times and The Independent – publish leaders this week on the question of contribution, and why it’s the key to creating a welfare system that is both fair and affordable. From today’s Times (£):
Sir William Beveridge’s original idea of welfare in Britain was that help was afforded in return for a contribution through national insurance. There was a direct link between paying in during good times and drawing on the pool of collective resources in bad times… The link between contribution and welfare has declined to the point of invisibility and it is understandable that there should be public trepidation when eligibility is no longer in any way earned.
It’s good to see contribution recognised as the critical issue in the welfare discussion. But it will be interesting to see where the discussion goes next. As we found during the National Conversation pilots in York, it’s one thing to agree that contribution is a key principle. Another to determine how that can be made to work in practice.
An editorial in The Independent asks if needs-based welfare has run its course. Should the contributory principle (the basis of Beveridge’s social insurance) make a come back?
In the longer term, the Government should also canvass views about a more contributory benefits system. Much current popular resentment reflects a feeling that there are people getting something for nothing, whether they are new migrants or those who have never worked. Over the years, the role of contributions has been reduced, and greater emphasis placed on need. This shift may now have run its course. A return to more contributory benefits might at once make the system seem fairer to all, without discriminating against new migrants.
We absolutely agree that that “the Government should also canvass views about a more contributory benefits system”. Re-building the welfare system for the kind of society Britain is today needs to start with grown-up conversations about what people believe is workable and fair. For a Westminster political class that’s grown out of touch with the public, this could be a great way to re-start relationships.
“Have the people given up on politics or has politics given up on them?” asks Janet Daley in today’s Sunday Telegraph. She writes at the end of the week that saw UKIP (“a party that will never form a government, and that has vilified all the plausible governing parties”) come second in Eastleigh, and a stand-up comedian ‘Beppe’ Grillo win the balance of power (a privilege he says he will not exercise) in the next government of Italy.
So why are voters moving away from the mainstream? For Daley, it’s all about choice. Or rather, the lack of it as Tories, Labour and Lib Dems converge around a mythical ‘middle ground’.
We hear a lot about the middle ground these days. As politics become more professional, more centred on the Westminster bubble and more detached from the real world, the middle ground has become a kind of holy grail for politicians and pundits.
Everyone wants to be on the middle ground, it seems. But It’s a strange-sounding place. Where ideas don’t matter, only impressions. Where nothing but consensus counts – and anything off the mainstream menu is considered unthinkable and extreme.
The middle ground is an insult to voters’ intelligence – and it’s sucking the life out of politics. If our political classes wonder why we’re staying away in droves, just consider what’s on offer on polling day. More of the same – differentiated only by the colour of the rosettes. And – as if to distract us (or keep themselves interested) – a background drone of manufactured outrage, posing and low-level scandals.
As Daley concludes (before moving onto US politics: another uninspiring example showing that every unhappy polity is unhappy in its own way): “Democratic politics is about choosing between differing political options: without significant meaningful differences between parties, the democratic process is pointless.”
So – as National Conversation pilot confirmed – if we want to rejuvenate democracy in the UK we need politicians to get off the centre ground, and give people real choices
You’d think the fact we’re all living longer would be a reason to celebrate. And it is. But this silver lining comes with a big black cloud.
“Today there are 10.6 million people over the age of 65; in two decades’ time, there are expected to be more than 16 million.”
In today’s The Independent, Ian Birrell considers the implications.
Hat tip to Ruth Dudley Edwards.
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.”
The first stage of the National Conversation told us that people want to see the debate on welfare lifted out of the tired left-versus-right argument.
William Beveridge, architect of the Britain’s welfare state and the inspiration for the National Conversation on welfare, could perhaps best be described as a man apart. A life-long old-fashioned Liberal, Beveridge took an independent view on welfare.
More on Beveridge and his political and social roots in Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s article from The Guardian.
As the 70th anniversary of Beveridge approaches, BBC Radio 4 returns to the welfare topic this week. A new series The State of Welfare – beginning on Tuesday 27 November at 10.00am and then available on the BBC iPlayer – promises to look at the welfare system from both sides, from the point of view of both recipients and contributors. Worth a listen.
Can we have a National Conversation – or any kind of free and open conversation – when the press is controlled by the state?
In today’s Telegraph, Fraser Nelson makes a level-headed and compelling defence for a free press. Killer quote: “…you can’t have a little bit of state control, any more than you can be a little bit pregnant. Either the press is free, or it must operate within parameters defined by the state.”
Next Tuesday evening at 7.00pm we will hold the next National Conversation Moot – and look for some new ways forward for welfare, beyond left and right. More details in the coming days…
For now, some interesting thoughts from Tim Stanley in today’s Telegraph about what happens when politics gets bogged down in partisanship.
Free speech and free thinking are core values of the National Conversation. We host – and aim to inspire – forums where people feel free to speak freely. So to speak.
Some thoughts from Tom Chivers at The Telegraph blogs on the rights and wrongs of comment moderation.