By Max Anderson
LONDON — A conference on "Economic Policies for Full Employment and Defence of the Welfare State" was held at Congress House on December 3. It followed a conference on "The Future of the Welfare State" in December 1993 which was described by a prime mover, Bryan Gould, as "one of the most significant gatherings on the left for a very long time" because of the support it generated within the labour movement for the goals of full employment and a continuing welfare state.
MP Ken livingstone said in his introduction to the conference, "The Republicans in the US are planning to balance the budget with massive attacks on the welfare state, and there are strong links between the Republicans and the Tories in Britain. It is disturbing that Michael Portillo has emerged as the leader of the Tory right, as he has articulated the case for the destruction of the welfare state."
The Labour Party leadership is currently indebted, for its view of where the welfare state might be going, to the report of the Commission for Social Justice. But its inadequacies were set out by Diane Abbott, who said that "it makes no attempt to deal with the inequality that has been Thatcher's legacy. It presents no challenge to the low-wage economy, and aims to put women into low-paid part-time work."
Another Labour MP, Joan Lestor, said that her constituency was one of the most deprived areas of Britain, and "a lack of jobs has created a loss of hope". Although Britain's wealth had trebled since 1960, poverty had trebled with it, and a quarter of children in Britain live below the poverty line.
John Edmonds, the general secretary of the GMB (the general union), praised the Full Employment Forum for its victory in the battle of ideas. "We have transformed the labour movement's political agenda. At the 1992 general election, full employment wasn't an issue, but John Smith's speech to the 1993 TUC Conference, at which he signalled the Labour leadership's commitment to full employment, was a turning point."
Actually creating full employment, Edmonds said, would not be as difficult as some people thought. "The work to do is everywhere: in transport, the environment and caring for the elderly. But the market won't create jobs. Both initial economic stimulus by government and a commitment on its part to carry policies through would be necessary; so it must occasionally borrow money to stimulate the economy."
Edmonds was signalling his desire for a Labour government to reject the neoclassical economic outlook, centred on balanced budgets and low inflation, that has dominated policy making since the late 1970s. Further points of departure from the monetarist consensus were outlined by Dr Brian Burkitt, who suggested a series of tax rises, including the imposition of a sales tax on private health and education.
The final session, chaired by Jeremy Corbyn MP, was rounded off by a call from Livingstone for the Labour Party to set out a positive strategy, rather than merely point out the failings of the Conservatives. He provided a rationale for the continuing existence of the welfare state: "Nearly everyone in parliament had the benefit of the welfare state, and I get angry at the thought that the generation which got so much out of it might kick away the ladder."