Recruitment, Rhetoric and Reforms: New Labour's Politicians and the Transformation of British Welfare Provision

In the 1960s, the UK had some of the most generous welfare provision in the world, assisting people `from the cradle to the grave', in the words of its designer William Beveridge. Widely supported by voters and politicians of all stripes, it remained largely intact into the early 1980s. Yet since then, the benefits system has been radically transformed into one of the developed world's least generous, with major implications for poverty and social cohesion. Public opinion has also turned against it to a degree that is unmatched anywhere else. Until recently, both major parties largely embraced the new settlement, using increasingly harsh rhetoric to describe welfare - and its users.

 

Focusing on welfare programs that provide relief from unemployment, poverty, and disability, I ask why this transformation occurred. I offer an explicitly political and top-down explanation, focusing on the role of party competition and a large alteration in the composition of the UK's Labour party, which originally set up the welfare state. As it increasingly recruited legislators from outside of the working-class, both its stance and rhetoric on welfare reform changed dramatically. I show that this rhetoric ultimately turned the British public into welfare skeptics who are willing to endorse far-reaching retrenchment. Hence this case study offers a cautionary tale of how the political coalitions underpinning social policy can quickly unravel. Political and popular support for these programs is by no means guaranteed, even in an era of rising insecurity and inequality, particularly as social democratic parties become increasingly unrecognizable compared to their working-class roots.

 

The project uses a database I have assembled of every speech made about welfare issues in the British Parliament from 1987-2015, together with a wealth of public opinion data. It combines historical accounts, computational and qualitative text analysis, and quantitative observational and experimental evidence to explain how British welfare provision, rhetoric and public opinion were all transformed in the space of a single generation.