Social Welfare Regime Series: 2 – Social Policy Reform in the UK

Isaac Chng Yong Lun | Public Policy and Global Affairs Year 3 | 12th October 2017

From Poor Laws System to Liberal Welfare Reforms: A brief history and Drivers of Social Policy Reform in the United Kingdom

~ Social changes do not happen out of thin air. It arises out of a confluence of an idea with permissive material realities.~ Isaac Chng, Nicholas Yeo (2017)

Blau and Abramovitz (2003), in their book of ‘Dynamics of Social Welfare Policy’, proposes that social policies are grounded in the following factors: the economy, politics and structure of government, ideology, social movements, and history. This essay borrows the first three factors from this framework to identify drivers of social policy reforms in the United Kingdom (UK) between the Poor Laws system and the modern Welfare-state.

The Poor Laws System

The Poor Laws System were draconian by today’s standards. It directed the state to house the impotent poor in an alms-house–dependent on the good-will of churches and secular charities; and the able-bodied poor to a workhouse–where life was deliberately harsh to deter frivolous dependence on the state. Debtors were imprisoned until they pay off the sum of debt, accrued interests, and costs of incarceration with whatever little income they earn through prison labor.

On the ideological aspect, England’s minimalistic and punitive social policies manifested from conservatism. Considering that Protestantism is the state-religion of England, this conservatism ideology could be motivated by the protestant work ethic–which espouses hard work, discipline, and frugality.

On the economic aspect, the economy was rooted in the household, where family members had highly differentiated roles based on gender and seniority, and are obligated to support each other without monetary exchange. This cooperation and risk-pooling helped most families to survive. Furthermore, the focus of the state was the economy. The early Poor Laws System legislation in the 14th century was concerned with making able-bodied people work to mitigate labor shortage after the Black Death – which policy objective is arguably reasonable given poor labor productivity at that time.

On the political aspect, despite parliamentary supremacy after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, representation was undemocratic until the Reform Act of 1832 (officially known as the Representation of the People Act 1832) and Parliamentary Act 1911. Formerly, the House of Lords -consisting of nobles and landowners- was superior both in theory and practice. The unchanging electoral boundaries over the centuries have led to pocket boroughs with small electorate susceptible to bribery by wealthy land-owners and nobles to elect a preferred candidate into the Commons. From a materialist-rational perspective, these entrenched elites would be primarily self-interested and pay little regard to inequalities and welfare of commoners.

Transition from Poor Laws into Welfare State Regime

After the 1906 general elections, the Liberal Party embarked on Liberal Welfare Reforms that marked the emergence of the modern welfare state that is far more generous than the preceding Poor Laws System. Like the Bismarck’s legislation of the 1880s in Germany, the reform guaranteed national healthcare insurance for poor workers and pension for elderlies above age 70. This paradigm shift can be explained by a series of ideological, economic, and political changes that underlies social policies.

On ideological changes, there was a shift from conservatism towards liberalism. Weber argued that the original ascetic nature of the Protestant Work Ethics gave way to the ‘Spirit of Capitalism’-which espouses the rational pursuit of economic gain. The shift towards Liberalism was sparked by the shift of economic activity from the household to the industry during the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Liberalism recognizes that working in the market economy exposes individuals and families to extraneous risks of dislocation – such as economic recession, company bankruptcies and retrenchment. Thus, Liberalism argues for state assistance to dislocated families.

On the economic aspect, the shift from the agrarian economy to the industrial economy caused unprecedented labor productivity. This alleviates the economic constraints of running generous welfare systems, thus absolving the original justification for the draconian Poor Laws System of solving labor shortages. Moreover, improvements in labor productivity resulting from industrialization created the economic resources needed to enable the welfare state.

On the political aspect. Amid the industrial revolution, the 1832 Reform Act abolished pocket boroughs that were exploited by powerful patrons to install candidates into the House of Commons. This distributed political power to the middle class, and created the need for political parties to gain wider appeal among the citizenry, setting the stage towards liberal policies. The Liberal Welfare Reforms was a political response to protect votes from the threat from the emerging Labor Party -that promotes Socialism-, and capitalize on the rising unpopularity of the conservative government.

In summary, the analysis identified the following changes that caused generous welfare provision in the UK: the ideological shift towards liberalism, shifting economic unit from the household to the industry, the enabling effects of improving labor productivity stemming from industrialization, and the democratization of political representation leading to political demand for more generous welfare provision.

Politics First vs Policy First: The Sortition Solution [Part 2/2]

Isaac Chng Yong Lun | Public Policy and Global Affairs Year 2

Review of Part 1 – The Relative Merits of Politics First vs Policy First

In the previous article, I wrote about the problem of demagoguery, and how this exposes the conflict between politics first or policy first approach in governance. The article noted that in democracies, where all votes are counted equal, low-information voters, acting as cognitive misers, can yield broad and harmful choices. This is a problem that is common to all democracies, especially in countries where civic mindedness is deficient.

We must keep and strengthen our faith in Democracy. Work must be done.

On 11 November 1947, Winston S Churchill famously stated: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…

I believe in the importance of Democracy. It allows a non-violent avenue for voters to ensure that governmental elites act for the people’s welfare, or at the very least, not turn rouge against the people’s interests. The degree to which this tool can be wielded effectively by citizens depends on their willingness to participate in politics, think critically and equip themselves with knowledge on current affairs.

When politics revolves around a politically active population subgroup, such as political parties and special interest groups, the common citizen feels alienated.

Alienation occurs when persons feels being isolated from a group or an activity to which one should belong or in which one should be involved, or in this case, the lopsided power relationships in favour of political elites.

This undermines citizens’ faith in democracy and its government. Without faith, there is no perceived legitimacy in the role of government as a guarantor of security, provider of welfare and symbol of national unity. The result is a nation-state where social groups and individuals takes matters into their own hands, greater exploitation by the economically powerful, and national disunity.

I will therefore double emphasize on the importance of faith in any governmental system and the following suggestion proposed serves not only to resolve the cognitive-miser problem in democracy, but also instil faith by institutionalizing greater involvement of the common citizen in the political process.

Introducing Sortition.

In governance, sortition refers to the random selection of representatives from the pool of eligible citizens. In many common-law jurisdictions, sortition is currently used to select jurors to hear court cases, and in some cases, to form political advisory units such as the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in Canada.

In addition to elected career politicians representing the conscious choices of the people, Sortition yields representation through scientific sampling of “jurors” from the electorate. An citizens’ assembly of jurors selected by sortition will yield a more accurate representation of the electorate and their life circumstances, knowledges and values held. Suppose you have a tub of mixed fruit juice, and you scoop a spoonful of it, the taste of the mixed fruit juice in the spoon would taste the same as the juice in the tub. Sortition assures descriptive representation, where the body of representatives possesses the same descriptive characteristics of the population.

These jurors, who would advocate for themselves, and consequently advocate for persons of similar circumstances to their own, will participate directly in the political decision making process.

A Demarchy-Representative Democracy Hybrid – The Sortition Solution and harnessing the Science of Sampling

Singapore’s electorate population, as of the most recent general election in 2015, is 2,462,926. Suppose we are willing to accept a 5% margin of error and 95% confidence level of representativeness, we would need to allot 385 “legislative jurors” to the citizens’ assembly.

Stratified sampling can be performed to improve precision of representation, and to reduce nonresponse biases, or in this case, the different levels of willingness among different homogenous population subgroups to serve on the citizens’ assembly. The population can be divided into categories that represents different life circumstances such as age, income and wealth levels, gender and sex, race and religion, and place of residence.

The use of scientific sampling to select legislative jurors assures political inclusiveness, as it eliminates the role of educational and socio-economic privileges, political connections, and other political hurdles for citizens of all levels of society to participate directly in governance.

With descriptive representativeness assured, the next step is for the state to invest quality resources to ensure that all legislative jurors are equipped with relevant knowledge for the day and critical thinking skills.

To ensure that legislative jurors learn the relevant knowledge and critical thinking skills for the discharge of their duties, I suggest that they be selected in advance and be trained in the 1 year before taking office. To establish continuity of the citizens’ assembly, legislative jurors will serve for 5 year terms and be selected annually in equally sized batches. This allows newer legislative jurors to learn from the more experienced ones.

Roles of Legislative Jurors

I propose 3 main roles for Legislative Jurors.

Firstly, on issues not well-managed by self-interested politicians. Legislative jurors can decide on issues that involves conflict of interest among elected politicians. These issues include electoral law, redistricting, campaign finance law, the regulation of political speech, anti-corruption, ministerial pay, and organic law. One reason dominant political parties’ foothold in politics seems unshakeable is due to their power to decide on the terms and conduct of the elections. In the US, electoral boundaries in states are often decided by the elected legislature. While gerrymandering along racial lines has been rules unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, partisan gerrymandering is still permissible. First Past the Post system, coupled with politically motivated gerrymandering, has entrenched Republicans and Democrats powers across federal, state and city level of government. In Singapore, the GRC system has also benefited the People’s Action Party at the expense of smaller opposition parties. These controversies cannot be well-managed by self-interested politicians, and since Legislative Jurors are mostly laypersons who does not enjoy opportunities for re-election, such issues can be decided in an impartial manner.

Secondly, on oversight roles. Where the citizens’ assembly finds that national issues are not well-resolved by the elected politicians, legislative jurors may act to participate in the decision-making process for that issue to forge a more acceptable consensus, otherwise, the citizens’ assembly may veto the relevant bills from the elected house of parliament.

Third, advisory roles. During non-election periods, legislative jurors may hold a political advisory role, combining their knowledge of circumstances faced by individuals within their own social strata, and knowledge gained from the discharge of their political duties, to advise elected politicians on the best course of action, based on the collective personal conscience of the legislative jurors. In addition, during the election season, the citizens’ assembly, and individual legislative jurors, representing the diversity of values, social groups, and life circumstances in the nation, could advise the electorate on the best candidates or political parties to vote in an election.

Limits of Sortition and the need to retain Elected Representatives

With the inherent advantages of sortition, coupled with its potential to strengthen faith in democracy, one would ask: should we replace elections entirely with sortition? Nope. I believe that this would be unwise. There are several reasons.

First, the nature of sortition is such that as batches of legislative jurors are randomly selected at every term, it is difficult for the citizens’ assembly as a body to exercise strong expertise in governance, and to translate public values into sound policies.

Second, legislative jurors lack of enthusiasm present in career politicians means that long hours of policy deliberations can lead to burn out, and lacklustre policies.

It is thus evident that elected politicians still play an important role in governance. Sortition should thus serve as a complement, rather than replacement of electoral democracy.

Beyond institutional reforms. Change begins within you.

            While sortition can translate public values into sound policies with greater precision and thus strengthen faith in democracies, it does not on its own solve the problem of cognitive misers in democracies. Institutional reforms may help to mobilize the potential within the society, but change begins from the individual. A country of citizens who continue to cling on to dogmas and reject facts can never stomach sound policies in the face of emotionally appealing but unsound policies. Furthermore, it will be an uphill effort for the sortition proposal to be adopted, given its political implications to political elites.

As we adopt a culture of critical thinking, with respect to facts, with compassion and kindness, and without undue influence by hatred and ego, we can look forward to a more equitable, just and utilitarian society.

See also: Politics First vs Policy First: The Relative Merits [Part 1/2]