Taylor-Gooby and Leruth (eds), Attitudes, Aspirations and Welfare

Peter Taylor-Gooby and Benjamin Leruth (eds), Attitudes, Aspirations and Welfare: Social policy directions in uncertain times, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, xix + 317 pp, 3 319 75782 7, hbk, £79

What do people expect from their welfare state? That is the question that this edited collection attempts to answer, both in general and in detail. To answer it, the book’s contributors employ ‘democratic forums’: forums in which cross-sections of the public can define both the structure and the content of the conversation. As the editors suggest, this is to employ populism in the service of social policy.

The editors’ introductory chapter provides a concise ‘state of the continent’ summary. It discusses the challenges facing European welfare states – the financial crisis, governments’ responses to it, labour market changes, immigration, and a neoliberal individualist agenda – and then existing responses to those challenges, such as active labour market policies, and the rise of populist politics. Existing evidence on public attitudes is discussed. Welfare states remain popular, as does redistribution, but benefits for able-bodied people of working age are less popular.

The researchers’ research method is then described.  ‘Democratic forums’ took place in Denmark, Norway, Germany, Slovenia, and the UK. Each one consisted of thirty to forty individuals, and discussion took place over more than a day, in both plenary and breakout sessions, with little moderation. Participants could request information, which was then provided by independent experts. Pre-coded interviews took place both before and after the forums so that researchers could evaluate attitude change. Such democratic forums (which the editors call ‘mini-publics’) have been used in a number of settings – for instance, in setting local budgets – but the editors believe that this is the first time that they have been used to discover attitudes towards welfare states.

Chapters 2 and 3 discuss what the forum conversations taught the researchers about individualism and welfare nationalism, and then subsequent chapters tackle attitudes relating to particular issues: inequality and redistribution; intergenerational solidarity; responsibility for care; healthcare systems; and labour market challenges. From the wealth of detailed evidence provided, the editors draw a number of conclusions: Welfare states are still popular, but neoliberal individualism has resulted in an increasing stress on personal responsibility in relation to the labour market, pension provision, and other social policy fields. The deserving/undeserving distinction remains popular, as do policies based on it. There is a general lack of confidence that governments are able to protect and sustain welfare states. The editors find that welfare state regime types correlate with attitude patterns, particularly in relation to inequality, responsibility, and labour market issues. The ‘intergenerational contract’ remains strong throughout Europe. In the UK, ‘liberal individualism fits with anti-immigration strategies and disquiet about state capacity’ (p. 21); there is anxiety about the sustainability of the welfare state; and a strong sense of individual responsibility underlies a social division between those with paid work and those without it.

It might be of interest that Basic Income entered the discussions of the democratic forums in Germany and Slovenia, but not elsewhere (p. 39): but of more significance might be the method that the researchers employed – a method that could be appropriate to the discovery of public attitudes to Citizen’s Basic Income, because it enables people to think round the issues at length rather than respond immediately to a list of questions. Of even more significance might be some of the editors’ conclusions, particularly in relation to the UK. The two important questions that this book raises are these: Is it possible to frame Citizen’s Basic Income as promoting individual responsibility, as sustainable, as benefiting the deserving more than the undeserving, as a deterrent to immigration, and as representing intergenerational solidarity? The answer would be ‘yes’ if a residence requirement were to be implemented. And would Citizen’s Basic Income, once implemented, shift some of these attitudes in a more solidaristic direction? The answer is again ‘yes’.

This is an important book. It describes an important method, and some important results.