The Labour Party is recasting its policies on the welfare state and one substantial contribution to its thinking is the Report of its Commission on Social Justice.footnote1 What informed the Commission’s approach? Without saying as much, they appear to have been governed by the belief that to win the next election the Labour Party must bow to the pressures of the international market, reduce long-standing aspirations to social equality and withdraw from the most costly commitments to the welfare state. This led them to neglect what might be done about globalization, to discount stark national evidence about current economic trends and to ignore the implications of that evidence for social policies.

The Commission’s Report attempts to bring off a fine balancing act—but on several counts does not succeed. Modernization is conceived as a problem of maintaining the allegiance of traditional Labour supporters while persuading them that it is no longer necessary or possible to aim for social equality and community through stuctural change. In the process, it is supposed, Labour will placate business interests or even harness them to its cause, and appeal to middle-of-the-road voters. New Labour will ‘transform the welfare state from a safety net in times of trouble to a springboard for economic opportunity’ with measures which enhance employability by investment in training and adult education, establish a minimum hourly wage and other legal rights, and possibly shift taxation from earnings to environmental pollution and resource use, including the use of roads.

If this characterization is correct, Labour’s domestic policies on health, education, housing, community care, social security, personal taxation and employment will now be altogether different from those it pursued after the War. The policies seem to depend on vacating the ‘social’ place in Europe and the world associated with Labour’s construction of a welfare state. This conclusion, if not the exact policies which flow from it, appear to be endorsed by Tony Blair—for example in his speech on the fiftieth anniversary of Labour’s victory of 1945.footnote2

There is an alternative approach, which the Commission did not seriously consider. It starts from the recognition that problems of impoverishment, social polarization and political instability have reached dramatic, and indeed threatening, proportions because powerful forces within the international market are operating in conditions of diminishing democratic restraint. The evidence for these disturbing trends is overwhelming.footnote3 As a consequence poverty and inequality are deepening at an alarming rate.footnote4 In these circumstances, a major national plan for social reconstruction, put forward in common cause with partners in Europe and elsewhere, is urgently needed to slow down, halt and even reverse these disastrous social trends. Given this background, the tasks for domestic policy then fall into place: complicity with international market forces will not do the trick. Only resolute dependence on collective interests and their expression through principles of public organization, control, and service will work. The formulation of such an approach in the uk might also reinvigorate a disillusioned electorate—as well as disillusioned democratic socialists. One point in particular appears repeatedly to have been ignored by the Commission: the basis of any partnership between public and private sectors depends on a strong public sector. Yet of course the public sector has been, and continues to be, undermined. Serious proposals have to be put in place to restore and enhance its viability as an institutional force.

This alternative approach can be considered at various different levels. If we consider different models of the ‘Welfare State’, then we must ask whether Britain should, following the United States, take the path of the ‘gradual erosion’footnote5 of what is already close to becoming a ‘residual’ welfare state; or whether it should instead emulate the greater resistance to such institutional dismantlement displayed by some of the central European and Scandinavian countries; or even attempt to reinstate welfare in conformity with a new European model involving better integrated social and economic development.footnote6 Of course, a more forthright case for measures to establish a radically more democratic and equal society, with necessarily a much larger public sector and system of public service, should be argued. But we can start by registering the decline from past standards. Social scientists attempt to classify the policy systems of different countries—sometimes in relation to measured fulfilment of declared objectives like social equality or equality of opportunity or sometimes just in relation to expenditure on certain arbitrarily defined public (and private) services. The uk seems to score better on the latter than the former criteria, partly because of its entrenched class system,footnote7 but nevertheless even on these grounds, when compared with other industrial countries, it ranks low.

In the past some social scientists and historians saw the British welfare state largely as an accommodation to capitalism, and as perpetuating, rather than seriously modifying, class inequalities.footnote8 Such criticism did not register the extent of concessions and actual gains it represented. Likewise little effort was made to account for significant variations between states, whether classified by welfare or political criteria. This led to complaints that ‘neo-Marxist grand theorists have largely rested content with abstract conceptual elaborations tied to illustrative case materials for one nation at a time.’footnote9 In recent years there have been changes. There are more attempts to compare developments empirically across countries, with the delineation of three worlds of welfare capitalism: the socialist—Denmark and the Netherlands, as well as Sweden; the conservative-corporatist—France and Germany; and the liberal—the United States.footnote10 Hitherto analysts have been inclined to distinguish the uk from the conservative-corporatist sub-category, but now the link with the us is more often made—mainly because of the extent of privatization, deregulation and means-testing since 1979. Another important theoretical development has been to look at particular welfare-state institutions and services—like pensions or housing—in depth, and across countries, in relation to the type of welfare state, as a basis for explaining social trends. Thus Michael Harloe has studied developments in public housing in relation to social-policy theory.footnote11 Such research helps focus attention on social and economic policies as the prime agents of social change—whether progressive or regressive, whether tending towards or away from social disaster. Civil instability, and the collapse of civil rights, including welfare rights, are now properly regarded as part of the record to be studied. In theoretical reviews of the recent past and future of the welfare state the need to combine structural and political perspectives is recognized.footnote12 They also bring to the forefront the need, analytically, to understand the linkages between different sets of policies. Against this background the Commission for Social Justice was given the task of producing a reasoned theoretical basis for systematizing social planning.

The Borrie Commission’s formal assignment was therefore potentially path-breaking. Its work was bound to reflect the preoccupations of its members. The Commission was set up in December 1992 and its report was published in November 1994. Its chairman was Sir Gordon Borrie, formerly the Director-General of Fair Trading. Among the fifteen other members of the Commission were some who were not members of the Labour Party and one, David Marquand, who had been a member of the Steering Committee of the sdp from 1981 to 1988. Trades union and public service representation was very thin. The chairman declined to reassure Labour supporters that their historic commitments would be respected. Indeed, his press comments often gave the Conservatives a stick with which to beat the Labour Party. For example, an article in the Observer on 2o June 1993 indicated that the Welfare State was at risk. It became increasingly clear that key principles of universality—particularly those affecting basic state pensions, child benefit and disablement benefit—were not inviolate. It is one thing to modernize policies, but surely another to repudiate the achievements and aspirations of generations of socialists.