Wooing workers Shearer's challenge

LABOUR LEADER: David Shearer.
LABOUR LEADER: David Shearer.

As new Labour leader David Shearer embarks on the daunting task of reconnecting his party with the people who used to vote for it, he could do worse than take note of recent developments in Britain.

There, Liam Byrne, the British Labour Party's spokesman on work and pensions, has written an extraordinary article calling for a radical rethink of the welfare policy his party first introduced almost seven decades ago.

The article, in The Guardian, was published on the 70th anniversary of the publication of the Beveridge report that paved the way for the creation of the welfare state in Britain.

What Michael Joseph Savage was to New Zealand in the 1930s, William Beveridge, economist and social reformer, was to Britain in the 1940s.

His report called, among other things, for free medical treatment for all and a national system of benefits to provide "cradle to the grave" security. When the Attlee government took power in 1945 it was adopted holus-bolus.

Byrne lauds him for his vision, but says he would be worried by the way his system has "skewed social behaviour" by creating long-term dependency. "For him 'idleness' was an evil every bit as insidious as disease or squalor," writes Byrne. "He wanted a responsible government taking determined action to create work, but a responsible workforce too."

Michael Joseph Savage, the architect of New Zealand's welfare state, believed everybody, as a right of citizenship, was entitled to "a reasonable standard of living in the days when they are unable to look after themselves, whether it be because of old age or physical infirmity". However, he also believed in the dignity of the working man.

It is inconceivable that Savage and his colleagues ever viewed welfare as a valid alternative to work, as some of their successors appear to do.

They wanted workers to be fairly rewarded for their efforts, to operate in safe workplaces, and, if they fell on hard times, to receive support till they could get back on their feet. Labour's proposal to extend to beneficiaries the "in work tax credit", intended to compensate low-income workers for the extra costs associated with working, must have had them spinning in their graves.

If Mr Shearer is to succeed in his mission, he needs to champion the hard-working individuals who get up each morning, make lunch for their children, get them off to school, then go off to work themselves.

No-one begrudges the assistance given by the state to the sick, the injured and those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves without a job. There, but for the grace of God, go all of us.

However, the aim of welfare policy must always be to help those without work secure a foothold in the employment market. Schools, hospitals and roads are not built with welfare cheques.

In New Zealand, as in Britain, the challenge for Labour is to reconnect the party with the working man, and woman.