Confessions of a Political Animal

January 4, 2012

I want to talk about welfare reform. Liam Byrne won’t let me.

Filed under: Labour Party,Poverty,Public spending — Political Animal @ 9:11 pm

I want to talk about welfare reform. Liam Byrne won’t let me.

Resheath your pens, denizens of the Fourth Estate. This isn’t a tale of shadow cabinet ministers cracking down on free expression by humble bag-carriers.

Over the New Year holiday, the forces of Twitter were unleashed on the shadow secretary of state for work and pensions. He knew they would be. He wanted them to be. Otherwise he wouldn’t have pre-briefed the Daily Mail in advance of his not-massively-controversial-when-taken-on-its-own Guardian piece on welfare reform. Not being a paper that puts many coins in the nuance meter, the Mail duly obliged with a piece heavy on the rhetoric of ‘scroungers’, ‘cheats’ and ‘evils’.

The Mail article predicted a fight with ‘the left’, a prediction that even Old Mother Shipton could probably have managed to get right. Though when the fight immediately came, those ranged against the ‘new line’ on welfare included large sections of the Labour centre and right as well. Again, Byrne won’t mind. Some have said he’s a Blairite who still sees getting into a scrap with both the intra-  and extra-Labour ‘left’ (however defined) as a vote winner. Being increasingly disinterested in such labeling, I’ll simply describe him as a politician doing what a certain breed of politician has always done – seeking identity through conflict. It’s a tactic as old as the hills and generally about as useful for gaining votes as said hills.

Twitter, like the Daily Mail, isn’t a great place for nuance. It provided very little over those days. A lot of the condemnation that Byrne received, particularly over the Mail piece, was more than justified. Sure, there’s those who can’t see the words ‘welfare’ and ‘reform’ together on a page and not immediately label the writer as a Thatcherite lickspittle. But there were many who pointed out precisely where the language of ‘the scrounger’ leads us. To the demonisation of the vast majority of genuine benefit claimants, to finger-pointing, to misplaced blame. To the steadily growing instances of hate crimes against the disabled, to the suicides, to the stigma and to the political space it gives to the forces of reaction in the two governing parties to chip away still further at the welfare settlement.

These, by themselves, are more than good enough reasons not to engage in such easy, throw-away rhetoric, even if the words that appear under your actual byline are far more measured. But there is a further reason: by doing so, you in fact close down the debate on welfare reform and make genuine reform all but impossible. You condemn the British welfare state – the Beveridgian inheritance Byrne proclaims himself to be an heir of – to another decade of managed decline.

Let me be honest – I don’t think the British welfare state works. That doesn’t mean I want to throw every recipient of benefits on the breadline. For probably somewhere in the region of 99% of claimants, I would be happy to die (metaphorically at least) in the last political ditch to ensure a continued guarantee of those benefits. But I’m not necessarily prepared to offer even so useless a sacrifice for the system that calculates and writes that cheque. The Welfare State is a post-war creature, predicated on full employment, jobs for life, stay-at-home mothers, the nuclear family and predictable cycles of boom and recession. Like a vast, gothic cathedral, it is a magnificent edifice. The very scale and noble purpose of it can make the most secular heart sing. But we’ve tried patching it up to make it more suitable for the modern age. It’s worked in places – the tax credit system is doing a passable job of keeping the rain from leaking through the sacristy roof, for example – but there’s only so far this can go.

The British welfare state is inflexible, complex, user-unfriendly, faceless and unpersonalised. When I make those criticisms, that doesn’t mean I want a replacement which is less generous or more austere to those in need. In fact, I want to see a system which doesn’t lead to billions in benefits going unclaimed – as many have pointed out, that, in terms of scale,  is the true scandal, not the relatively limited benefit fraud.

But I also know that one of the key pillars of the post-war welfare settlement is legitimacy in the eyes of the public. I’ve canvassed enough Labour heartlands (and non-Labour heartlands) to know that this is eroding. A lot of that is due to misreporting and misplaced rhetoric, based on a very limited number of genuine case of welfare state failure. But tell me that the average Labour voter doesn’t like the language of ‘scroungers’ and ‘cheats’ and I will laugh in your face.

That, however, is not an excuse to perpetrate it. By doing so, we simply enter an arms race with the Tories which we cannot win.

A political party cannot ignore public opinion; nor should it believe it cannot play a part in shaping it. The counsel of despair which is governance by the top-line findings of opinion pollsters leads to a non-courageous style of government which would never, for example, have seen Labour Home Secretaries abolish the death penalty or lower the age of consent. Rather than demonising the old welfare settlement, and particularly not those who depend on it, you address the concerns through a new settlement in which the majority can have confidence.

Soaring unemployment is creating a new influx of welfare state users, from a wide range of social backgrounds, including large numbers of graduates and professionals. Not only does this render a shift to generally abusing welfare recipients as politically short-sighted, it also misses that opportunity to build a new, legitimated, welfare settlement. The ‘new unemployed’ will quickly discover the shortcomings of the current system – the petty bureaucracy,  the low payments, the unwelcoming JobCentrePluses, advisers who, whilst committed, are going to struggle with this influx. They will demand change, improvement. And they have the political clout to do so.

This new unemployment is a personal and economic tragedy, yet it is also a political opportunity to forge a new consensus. A welfare state that is based around work where possible, and a comfortable existence where it isn’t; that personalises its offering for each client; that provides genuine training and (properly) paid work opportunities; that doesn’t stigmatise or dehumanise the long-term claimant. And yes, maybe Byrne is right to suggest a greater role for the contributory principle – I am not going to attack him for wishing to emulate parts of the often highly successful welfare systems of much of northern Europe.

So, I should be excited by the opportunities for welfare reform, and for my party to be spearheading them. But I’m not. Because instead, Liam Byrne has catapulted us into a pointless, degrading and actually rather childish debate about  linguistics. Rather than a victory for those who want to debate welfare reform, even if we don’t agree with every dot and comma of Byrne’s stance, he has handed a victory on a plate to the conservatives (lower case ‘c’ intentional) on both left and right who will countenance no reform. He has removed the option of nuance and made it harder for genuine welfare radicals to put their heads above the parapet. And by failing to link in policies on job creation to the narrative on welfare reform, he has left many people shaking their heads as to the disconnect with the most pressing economic debate.

I disagree with Liam Byrne on a lot, but I don’t think he’s an evil benefit-snatcher. I’m not, as Owen Jones puts it, ‘ashamed to share a party card with him’. I joined a broad church party, and by doing so happily accepted that I’d be sharing a card with Byrne. But I thought the leadership had learnt some lessons on the linguistics of welfare reform. To my mind, Ed Miliband’s biggest mistake since taking over the leadership was the line in his Coin Street speech in which he appeared to qualify himself to judge a man on incapacity benefits’ ability to work. This soured an otherwise thoughtful and intelligent speech on responsibility ‘at top and bottom’, and rightly caused anger. At party conference, Miliband seemed genuinely contrite and understanding about why that had been an error. I don’t think he, personally, will make it again. But he has allowed Byrne off the leash to make that mistake on his part, and by doing so has damaged the prospects of a new welfare settlement being at the heart of Labour’s next manifesto, where it belongs.

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May 24, 2010

A Job Description

This is a joint post by Political Animal and Lost Lucan

The brave new world has dawned, and in the hard cold morning following the battle we can survey the wreckage: the promise of retrenchment with a nasty twist. Cuts, and a re-pointing of the welfare state to the benefit of the better off, with a hike in VAT rather than employer’s National Insurance being used to fill the Treasury’s coffers. From amidst the dust and rubble we rise, clutching the few belongings remaining to us, to start again down the road to government.

And so who will lead us down the twisting path ahead? In some respects it matters not: the hats already thrown into the ring, and those promised to follow adorn the heads of a talented bunch, all of whom could make a decent stab at the task. We are fortunate in having an acting leader who is more than capable of setting the tone for the months and years ahead. No, what matters more is what policies we choose to pursue, around what principles we rally.

The government we face will be nasty, brutish and, sadly, not quite so short. In these times, it is imperative that we offer our new members and the electorate a distinct and decent platform, that we provide a strong voice for employees, the less well off and everyone else who does not fit into the Cameron mould and who would otherwise comprise the great ignored.  To that end, we believe that a successful Labour leader must pursue a progressive set of policies which promote not just equality of opportunity but equality of outcome, with an acceptance that the structural causes of poverty outweigh any impacts of so-called agency in preventing social mobility.

The Whigs had four policy areas to all but sacrifice upon the altar of ambition. We also propose four areas which, in our view, a successful candidate for the Labour leadership should  pursue. They are by no means the only important ones, but they strike at our core values, values which should not be offered up for any price. (more…)

January 15, 2009

Elephantine miscalculations

elephantAh, the Elephant and Castle. Exotic (well, exotic sounding) southern terminus of the Bakerloo line. World-class example of everything that was wrong with the car-centric planning of the 1960s. Site of one of Europe’s largest ever regeneration schemes. Perhaps. Maybe. One day.

The Elephant, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is an unappealing mixture of vast, traffic-clogged roundabouts, slightly threatening pedestrian underpasses, poor quality housing, shabby shopping arcades and badly integrated Underground, rail and bus hubs. The people who re-planned the area after substantial war damage thought visitors would come to watch  cars going round the roundabouts. For some reason, that didn’t happen.

On the fringes of the Elephant is the huge, barrier-block Heygate Estate, one of the most deprived areas of one of London’s most deprived boroughs and itself the subject of a major regeneration scheme– albeit one which shows all the signs of being horrendously badly managed by Southwark Council, who seem to be intent on clearing the blocks earmarked for demolition before enough suitable ‘decant’ housing for residents is available.

The Elephant regeneration, which centres around the creation of a pedestrianised town centre and the construction of new homes and businesses, is, however, in an even worse state. Southwark (more…)

November 21, 2008

Scooping the Standard

Proportion of total affordable housing output to be delivered per borough 2008-11

Proportion of total affordable housing output to be delivered per borough 2008-11

They’re a speedy lot over at ‘London’s Quality Paper’, aren’t they? Eighteen days ago, the Animal wrote about how Boris Johnson’s affordable housing targets were heavily skewed towards allowing most of the Conservative-run London boroughs to continue with their abysmal record of constructing affordable housing. And I can’t claim to be first – Inside Housing and Dave Hill both got there before me. The notifications of the targets were sent out to the boroughs’ Chief Executives the week before I wrote the post. So what’s this I see whilst idly scanning the Evening Standard’s website today?

Tory Councils ‘get easy ride on cheap homes’

Yup, nearly three weeks on, the Standard gets the story. I doubt if the blame for this tardiness can be placed at the door of Pippa Crerar, the paper’s generally even-handed City Hall editor, whose by-line (more…)

November 3, 2008

The quest for housing apartheid – Part 3: Boris wades in

The Animal has discussed here before the fact that there is some pretty heavy-weight media backing for the continued ghettoisation of London’s housing supply, with a health dose of outrage being expressed at any attempts to provide a more mixed housing portfolio in the wealthiest areas of the city. Council housing in Kensington? Affordable rents in Fulham? Key worker housing in Hampstead? It’s all dangerous socialistic meddling in the free market, I tell you. Socialists! Reds! Run for the hills!

Now we’ve always known that Boris Johnson was a none-too-covert subscriber to this world view. I’m not suggesting he doesn’t wantsocial housing in London – he’s crossed the Cameron Rubicon in that respect – but he has real problems about where it is built. Scrapping the Livingstone aspiration for 50% of all new build housing to be socially affordable, regardless of location, loomed large in the Mayor’s election manifesto. And he has been as good as his word – last week, the 50% target’s death rites were read. Of course, the runes could be read well before then – appointing two leading former councillors from notoriously social housing-unfriendly Westminster to your team of ‘deputy mayors’, (more…)

October 26, 2008

The quest for housing apartheid – Part 2

I wrote a few days ago about the emerging trend for The Evening Standard, aided and abetted by its stable mate The Daily Mail, to push an agenda which boils down to the promotion of economic ghettoisation in London. First, we had the apparently over-expensive council house for refugees in wealthy Acton, then a council having the gall to temporarily accommodate a decanted council tenant in a nice house in decidedly bourgeois Highgate and on Friday we had the latest installment.

Under the headline £1.5 million houses for homeless, Friday’s Standard expressed its horror at a London borough spending ‘millions’ (allegedly, although the working isn’t shown) on renting houses in pleasant areas of the capital for those judged to be at risk of homelessness. The borough in question is the most aspirational of all – the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Of course, the Standard omits to mention that this is a permanently Conservative controlled borough and goes out of its way to pin the blame for this alleged injustice on the Labour government.

The Standard has uncovered one family living in a £1.5million, four-bedroom mews house in (more…)

October 22, 2008

Boris: Racism ends in 13 days, official

Apologies for the Boris-centered nature of this blog at the moment – but the man keeps on delivering the goods, so to speak, and it would be rude to ignore him.

The news following the mayoral election that Mr Johnson would be keeping on writing his column for the Daily Telegraph, at a rate of a cool quarter of a million per anum, was met with a mixture of surprise and outrage. Now the outrage is reasonably understandable, but the surprise really shouldn’t be. The problem is that many of the Mayor’s critics fall into the trap of dismissing him as a bumbling fool: but the truth of the matter is that he is a highly skilled political operator, and the retention of the column is a crucial part of his operations.

Johnson is clever enough to work out that the day-to-day routines of running London are not, in themselves, going to be enough to keep the Mayor in the national media eye. In fact, it won’t even necessarily keep you in the Evening Standard. This problem becomes all the more acute when your conception of the job of Mayor seems to boil down to running bus design competitions for 11 year olds and passing off your predecessor’s achievements as your own. So what’s a Mayor with greater political ambitions to do? The answer is quite simply: keep on with your previous career as a professional controversalist – especially when past experience shows that you can shrug off any ensuing criticism through your ‘loveable’ bumbling persona. So over the (more…)

September 16, 2008

‘These cows are near but those are far away. Near, far away.’

all the fault of Hoover's big government?

1929: all the fault of Hoover's Big Government?

With apologies to Father Ted Crilley for the post’s title. The ever-fascinating ConservativeHome* has introduced me to the delights of the blog of Douglas Carswell MP, the obscure Conservative MP for Harwich & Clacton, and in particular his latest post: ‘Big Government made the credit crunch‘. From reading the article, it strikes me that Mr Carswell, a member of the hard-right Tombstone Cornerstone Group, could do with some of Father Crilley’s advice on recognising the effects of perspective, particularly when it comes to recognising a ‘big’ government.

As the financial crisis deepens, it’s important to remember that the events unfolding are not a failure of the markets – it’s the market response to a problem created by Big Government.

 Note the capital letters. Apparently Big Government is a proper noun now. Mr Carswell continues:

For years, central banks – particularly the US Fed and the European Central Bank – have kept (more…)

September 13, 2008

Is it time to boom-proof the economy?

Time to raise public spending, Darling?

Time to raise public spending, Darling?

As the prospect of a recession looms in Britain, this may seem an odd time to talk about how the country should be preparing for the next global up-turn. However, the reality is that if the UK fails to make long-term considerations paramount in how it deals with this down-turn, the next up-turn could prove to be even more damaging than the effects of the credit crunch.

The simple truth is that there is no cast-iron reason why the next upward trend of the economic cycles has to include Britain. Nations have managed to sit-out boom times before – indeed, France and Germany seemed to manage it quite well last time round – and without the right choices being made, this could be Britain’ turn. Contrary to some expectations, there is no sign that the late 90s-early 00s boom will prove to be the last hurrah of globalisation. Rather it was the catalyst for the next stage of the globalising of the world economy: the breaking of US economic hegemony and the growth in the power of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Behind the dust cloud created by slowing or non-existent growth in the old economic powers of the US and Europe, these emerging powers appear to be largely weathering the storm – the IMF is, for example, continuing to predict 10% growth in the Chinese economy in 2008-09.

This means that when the older economies emerge from the slow-down, as they eventually will, they will have a lot of catch-up to play. This will be particularly hard to achieve given that some of the causes and symptoms of this recession, particularly high energy prices, are here to stay. But the countries that will find (more…)

September 4, 2008

Is this man the greatest threat to local democracy since Thatcher?

Last month Scotland’s First Minister took the, erm, courageous decision to announce on behalf of his nation that the Scottish people hadn’t minded the economic side of Thatcherism ‘so much’ and that it had been the lack of a social conscience to her policies that had so alienated people north of the border.

Apart from the basic political illiteracy of proclaiming such a clear seperation between economic and social policy, this statement amounted to a pretty impressive re-writing of history.

However, in the light of the Programme for Government set out by Salmond’s minority SNP administration this week, the reasoning behind the First Minister’s sudden apologia for the economics of Thatcherism has become a lot more clear. Unfortunately, he won’t be in a position to divorce the social costs of his economic policies quite as easily as he did in his glib statement.

The Abolition of Council Tax Bill that will be introduced during the coming session of the Scottish Parliament will replace the current property-value based council tax with a Scottish local income tax. Now, there is much to be said in favour of significant reforms of local government funding (more…)

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