What does Brexit mean for Social Policy in the UK?

This blog was originally posted on the IPR Blog, University of Bath entitled ‘After the Referendum: Picking up the bits’. With thanks to Professor Graham Room (who was one of our very first Policy Press authors!) for granting us permission to reblog the post below.

In today’s guest blog Professor Graham Room argues that if we are to manage the social changes of the 21st Century successfully and with public consent, a new social contract is needed, one which mobilises the energies and talents of all sections of society and that goes well beyond traditional welfare systems…

What have we learned from this referendum campaign, the passions and fears that it unleashed?

Were the electorate truly energised by the question, to leave or remain, or were they asking quite other questions than that on the ballot paper? Was this a national – and rational – debate about our membership of the European Union – or a mix of quite different hopes and especially fears, using this referendum as a brief opportunity to express themselves?

These questions arise most fundamentally for Labour, as they sense the gap that has opened up, between the internationalism of their London-based elite and their traditional supporters in the Midlands and the North. If Cameron, with his divided party, was forced to look Left for some hope, Labour was itself forced to look to its progressive middle class and younger supporters.


How did we get to this situation? How in particular did immigration divide Labour from its base?

Immigration into the UK over the last decade has been 5.77 million. Many have gone into areas of low-cost accommodation, alongside the working class households from whom Labour traditionally drew its support.

True, there has been emigration of 3.48 million (meaning net immigration has been 2.49 million) but not necessarily out of those same localities. During the same period, austerity and recession have meant cuts in public services, in jobs and in benefits, which have hit those same areas particularly hard. Is it so surprising that established residents should infer a causal connection? And is it surprising that they should feel insecure and abandoned?

In such a situation, it is incumbent on political leaders to unpick a complex mix of problems and offer policies which unite and build resilience. This both major parties have failed to do.

Labour assured us that immigration was a good thing: those who said otherwise were bigoted or misguided. After all, had not immigration been accompanied by some growth in GDP? (Maybe so, but real wages for households on average incomes stagnated). And did not immigrants contribute more in terms of social security contributions than they took out in benefits? (Maybe so, but in localities receiving large numbers, policies of austerity meant there was little if any financial support for the extra services needed.)

“The referendum provided an opportunity for them to give vent to their sense of abandonment.”

In the mid-20th Century, Tawney and Titmuss and T H Marshall provided an account of the development of UK social policy strongly related to national identity and solidarity. It set the fraternity and mutual interdependence of citizenship against the divisions and inequalities of class and against the turbulence and insecurity of an urban-industrial society.

It was a solidarity that would welcome the stranger – but this generosity depended on that foundation of solidarity. When other writers – Rimlinger and Esping-Andersen for example – wrote the comparative history of social policy in other countries, it was similarly in terms of the solidarity and resilience of local and national communities.

We might also go back to those sociologists who described the changes that came to working class urban communities in the mid-20th Century. Wilmott and Young described the move from the close-knit relationships of Bethnal Green to the nuclear families of Debden. Richard Hoggart described the ways in which rising levels of material consumption, while welcome in themselves, left those solidaristic links to atrophy.

By the end of the century, New Labour was able to bring consumerist aspiration and choice in public services to the centre of its electoral promise. The question was reduced to how well ordinary citizens would deal with this cornucopia, and how much a benign government would need to nudge them, if they were to exercise those choices wisely.

Such optimism for the new century was understandable. The economic crisis following 2008 – and the programme of austerity that followed – changed all that. Solidarity failed: all but the wealthiest suffered: Labour’s natural constituency suffered most of all. The referendum provided an opportunity for them to give vent to their sense of abandonment. It is this that we as a nation must now address.

The need is for positive action to rebuild our solidarity and creativity as a nation. Austerity has not worked and is intellectually bankrupt, having played a major part in producing the disaster we now face. Something different is needed.

Re-Building Solidarity

The recent direction of UK social policies has been to push as many as possible into the market place, narrowing public generosity towards those who remain. The burden of austerity has fallen on the most disadvantaged, multiplying the uncertainties to which they are exposed. This is the politics of fear – and of surrender to the global market.

‘in the twentieth century, citizenship and the capitalist class system have been at war’ TH Marshall

In contrast, the post-war social contract between State and citizen, across the western world, involved a pooling of risks and uncertainties through systems of social security. The same period saw governments confronting the economic instability of capitalist society. This has sometimes been characterised as a consensual process, the benign fruit of economic progress. Nevertheless, as T H Marshall warned: ‘in the twentieth century, citizenship and the capitalist class system have been at war’. [1] It was only out of that struggle that institutions of shared security emerged.

If the social changes of the 21st Century are to be managed successfully and with public consent, they need a new social contract to underpin them. We need to mobilise the energies and talents of all sections of society: and we are more likely to pull together if the distribution of rewards is less unequal. Such a contract would need to include several interrelated elements, going well beyond traditional welfare systems:

· Individual security against risks of income interruption: the heartland of traditional welfare states, albeit in the last half century on the defensive, across much of the industrialised world, in face of neo-liberal hostility to State welfare;

· Investment in everyone’s capabilities, not just in those with parental wealth: what many have referred to as the ‘social investment state’. There is good evidence that for a given financial outlay, it is investment in the lowest-skilled that can produce the greatest benefit for national productivity; [2]

· The rebalancing of our economies to provide ‘decent jobs’ which make use of everyone’s capabilities;

· Investment in vibrant local communities, as loci of education, learning and creativity for all: in particular for disadvantaged communities, which are often poorly connected to the community at large;

· Involvement of all in the governance of social, political and economic institutions, with active citizenship and scrutiny of public policies, and of the corporate interests which might otherwise detract from such a contract…..Continue reading here


[1] T H Marshall (1950), Citizenship and Social Class, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

#Brexit #EUreferendum

To read the full post click here.

If you liked that, you might like this:

How can we make sense of Brexit? – Some reading to help in these challenging times – buy any of these books before 31st July to receive a 50% discount on RRP!

Layout 1Professor Graham Room is author, co-author or editor of thirteen books including the following titles from Policy Press:

The European challenge: Innovation, policy learning and social cohesion in the new knowledge economy

Beyond the threshold: The measurement and analysis of social exclusion

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