I recently read the transcript of a Radio 4 programme on Blue Labour, the emerging policy position from some of Labour's best people. It left me deeply fearful. The Blue Labour dream is so attractive, and there is much to agree with, but at its heart is a dangerous confusion that will be its undoing and will cause immense harm.
These thinkers are right to say that the current system is too centralised. The UK is the most centralised welfare state in the world, and it makes no sense that Whitehall or giant private organisations run services in local communities. The trouble is that every new government starts by believing in localisation, wants to localise and yet still ends up centralising. Unless we address the deeper structural reasons for centralisation nothing useful will be achieved.
Much more worrying is talk of duties and virtues. Don't get me wrong, I'm a moral philosopher and a Christian, I believe in duties and I believe in virtue. But when the powerful start talking about virtue I want to run for the hills. This is not their domain.
The fundamental problem in our system is not duty, but rights. Our rights are not strong enough and not clear enough. The job of politicians is to protect our rights, not to define our duties. Give us our rights and we will do more than you could hope. Dictate our duties and you will diminish all of us. Citizens are not children - politicians are not parents.
Focusing on duties, not rights, quickly corrupts the best ideas. Take for example, the idea of personal budgets, which we developed to reform social care. Labour likes this idea - but I am not sure they have understood it. Personal budgets were designed to give people the right to a clear budget and the right to control it. This leads to people making better decisions and having better lives. But the idea is now being corrupted by bureaucratic controls that destroy those rights. Today, when local authorities are being forced to impose a 33% cut on social care, the idea of a right crumbles.
Of course duties and rights must be balanced. But it is nonsense to say that they must be balanced for the same individual. The purpose of the welfare state is to give everyone the same fundamental rights, while demanding that those with more income, wealth or advantage contribute more. That is what fairness means; this is what citizenship demands.
The real challenge for Labour is to defend its heritage. The welfare state is under attack like never before, and fighting for real rights is the key to its defence. It is noticeable that funding for pensions and the NHS have been protected because these are clear, non-means tested rights. Whereas the benefit system and social care, where means-testing and confusion are rife, are bearing the brunt of the cuts.
If Labour wants to build on its noble inheritance then there is much to do. Means-testing in social care is a disgraceful form of double taxation that targets disabled people and the elderly. It is also damaging and expensive, leading to more crises and hospital admissions. The current benefit system is stigmatising and disrespectful - it should be integrated into a unified tax-benefit system for all citizens. Perhaps we also need constitutional reform - to put our rights at the heart of the system of government.
It is even more worrying to see Blue Labour using untruthful stereotypes about people in poverty. This is so dangerous; it panders to the worst in human nature - our desire to blame others for problems of our own making.
The current economic crisis was not created by people in poverty, but by a house price bubble, which led to over-borrowing by almost everybody except the poor. Only 5% of real welfare spending goes to increase incomes, 95% is spent on systems and salaries. It is not need, but greed, that is damaging our society. A further assault on universal rights will not help.
It's not too late, but unless there is a fundamental rethink the Blue Labour Dream will become just another attack on our basic social rights. We need to shift power to ordinary citizens and local communities with effective universal rights.