The bloggers over at Dublin Opinion are forever uncovering gems. Their latest little dig, courtesy of Conor, brings us ‘Charley’s March of Time’– an animated promotional film produced by the British Labour Government to explain the introduction of social (or national) insurance back in 1948. This was the foundation of the modern welfare state in the UK.
One is struck by the forceful (and humourous) argument: before the welfare state we lived in a dog-eat-dog world (or, as the little film shows, dinosaur-eats-us-all). Charley is, at first, dubious about both the new payments he will have to make and the benefits he will receive. But when he gets a panorama of life before social insurance – the starvation, the untreated illnesses, the deportations and workhouses. the poverty and fear – he is convinced, enthusiastically so.
There are a number of lessons we can draw today. First, we should remember that in 1948 the British economy was in no great shape (rationing continued until well into the 1950s). Battered down by war and the cost of imperialism, with limited trade and a domestic market that was still in recovery mode, the Labour Party was now embarking on a massive social programme that would increase taxes/insurance contributions on wages and employers. What were they thinking? Could you imagine what our neo-liberals would say today? The Sunday Independent would go so apoplectic their printing presses would literally melt down.
Except: the Left (at least back then) realised that security of living standards is not a drain on the economy but the absolute pre-condition for economic growth. This is not a patronising ‘a-happy-worker-is-a-productive-worker’ argument but something more fundamental: a society that is battered down in worries and fear, left to the vagaries of ‘market forces’, does not have the stability needed to sustain prosperity-growth. That’s where social insurance comes in – not as a poverty-prevention measure, but as a champion of living standards.
Second, this social foundation cannot, by its definition, be left to the interplay of market forces. Rather, it is a democratic exercise, whereby people come together to solve their problems together – problems such as retirement income, health care, education, sickness benefit, etc., which are not solvable individually.
Third, is the optimism of politics. Through this little film, and throughout all their campaigning activities, the Labour Party actually believed they could win people over to a new future by the force of their political argument. They didn’t rely on focus group polling, or what the last person said at their advice centres.
The film lasts nine minutes. So if you’re on a work break, or your supervisor is out of the office – take some time to watch it. And imagine what the Left today could argue for:
- Earnings-related pensions
- Universal Health Insurance
- Earnings-related unemployment / sickness / disability benefit
- A proper maternity / paternity benefit combined with a real Family Leave programme
- Free nursing home care for grandparents, parents or, eventually yourself
- Back-to-education / Training Benefit (earnings-related, of course)
- Universal Housing Benefit
It’s been done before. And if we have the confidence in our argument, showing the real benefits that accrue through social insurance, we can succeed.