UCL Uncovering Politics

The Transformation of British Welfare Policy

Episode Summary

This week we are looking at welfare policy in the UK. It’s changed dramatically in the last three decades. We ask: How? Why? And what does the future hold?

Episode Notes

A new book out this month by our colleague Tom O’Grady begins with a remarkable quotation from a UN Special Rapporteur writing in 2018 about welfare reforms in the UK:

‘British compassion’ – the rapporteur said – ‘has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach apparently designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping, and elevate the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest economic levels of British society.’

In his book, Tom argues that, over the past 30 years, the UK’s welfare policies – meaning policies that provide relief from unemployment, poverty, and disability – have shifted from relative generosity to sometimes extreme meanness. He analyses why the change has occurred, arguing that much of the responsibility lies in the discourse of politicians and the media – most particularly, the choices about such discourse made by the Labour Party under Tony Blair in the 1990s.

The book combines cutting-edge political science, careful historical reconstruction and, in its final pages, an exploration of the options for better welfare policies in the future. It’s rich in meticulous research. But it is also passionate and committed, issuing a rallying cry to politicians – especially those on the left – to do better. 

And Tom’s book is our subject on this episode of UCL Uncovering Politics. We are joined by the author himself. Dr Tom O’Grady is Associate Professor in Quantitative Political Science at the UCL Department of Political Science. 

And we are delighted to say that we’re also joined by Garry Lemon, Director of Policy, External Affairs, and Research at the Trussell Trust, which supports over 1,200 food banks – helping people facing poverty across the UK.

Mentioned in this episode