Comments on Labour's "The Future of Work" series

“Those with the least have traditionally also suffered the sharpest impacts ofeconomic fluctuations through unemployment, under-employment and low wages. However, the breadth of the impact of income insecurity has widened, as legislative and economic demands for greater workplace flexibility – as well as tougher criteria to attain and retain state-funded benefits – mean even people with moderate incomes can no longer rely on getting the same amount in their bank account every payday. This makes it harder to plan, to save and to service a mortgage – factors that also lead to greater social instability.”

This is just the first paper in the Labour party’s series on the future of work. It describes very powerfully the nature of insecure, casualised work for many, and the uncertainties of modern life in the 21st century. There are also natural disasters we are ill prepared for.

It is time to expose the failures of existing policies. Pointing to the idealistic and unproven ‘solution’ of a basic income, Section 3 on income security is unhelpful. We already have a mechanism designed to provide a flexible basic income responsive to family needs: It is called Working for Families (WFF). But the problem is, that WFF badly needs fixing to perform this role properly.  

The time for asking “if the benefit system negatively impacts on the family’s ability to reach its potential and how we can better recognise unpaid work” is over.  Instead Labour needs to take an honest look at the features of the welfare system and WFF that fail in the world of work that they have so well described.

Clearly policies such as those of WFF were designed for an era that has passed for most low-income families. Tying major parts of WFF to performing fixed hours of paid work, especially in a casualised labour market, is just wrong. Such rules lend themselves to manipulation by the astute, all the while denying help to children most gravely in need of it. We should not be starting from the viewpoint that parents are lazy and need a ‘work incentive’. Nor should we allow any work incentive to be so very badly designed as is the In-Work Tax Credit.

The benefit system needs to be restructured to treat people as individuals and to reduce the severe disincentives to work. Supplemented by a well-supported reformed Working for Families, we move to a system that starts to reflect the underlying principles of the basic income idea.