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. But since then, the benefits system has been 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, emphasizing the role of party competition and a large shift in the composition of the UK's Labour party, which originally set up the welfare state. As it increasingly recruited MPs 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. The project uses a database I have assembled of every speech made about welfare issues in the British House of Commons from 1987-2015, together with a wealth of public opinion data. It combines historical accounts, computational and qualitative text analysis, and observational and experimental evidence to explain how British welfare provision, rhetoric and public opinion were all transformed in the space of a single generation. My findings suggest that across Europe, political and popular support for welfare provision 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, and welfare is subjected to means-testing, drawing lines between recipients and taxpayers.