Miliband's welfare plan deserves the left's support

His plan to reward those in work is a reaffirmation of the founding principles of the welfare state.

Despite the headlines it has attracted this morning, Ed Miliband's plan to give workers priority over the jobless for social housing is not a new one. In the fine speech he delivered on responsibility in June, Miliband promised that Labour would be "a party that rewards contribution, not worklessness." He cited the approach of Manchester which, as well as helping the most vulnerable, gives priority to those who contribute the most to their communities, be it through volunteering or employment, and those who have been good tenants in the past.

In his speech at 2:15pm today, he will say: "The hard truth is that we still have a system where reward for work is not high enough, where benefits are too easy to come by for those who abuse the system and don't work for those who do the right thing." His ambition is for the entire country to emulate the Manchester model: "Our first duty should be to help the person who shows responsibility, and I say every council should recognise the contribution people are making."

Miliband's bid to put the contributory principle back at the heart of the welfare state hasn't been welcomed by all on the left. It is viewed by some as a reassertion of the crude distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Buth both Lloyd George and Beveridge regarded the contributory principle as essential to preserve fairness, increase work incentives and maintain public support for the welfare state. Neither believed in a "take what you can" approach. As Beveridge put it in his 1942 report: "The correlative of the state's undertaking to ensure adequate benefit for unavoidable interruption of earnings is enforcement of the citizen's obligation to seek and accept all reasonable opportunities of work." (Although, of course, he assumed a system of full employment, hence the title of his second report in 1944: Full Employment in a Free Society.)

It's important to emphasise that Miliband isn't calling for the state to relinquish its duty to protect the poorest. Fears of workless families being evicted from their homes are wide of the mark. But he is proposing a radical reordering of our social contract. He recognises that an approach that focuses on need alone risks reducing the welfare state to an American-style safety net for the poorest. Miliband should now go further and take up James Purnell's proposal to extend the contributory principle to pension provision. Those who pay in should receive a higher pension than those who do not.

Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, recently observed that "Labour is behind on welfare reform. It must get back in front". Miliband's vision of a system that rewards those who give the most, rather than simply those who need the most, offers one way to do so.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Labour will soon be forced to make clear its stance on Brexit

The Great Repeal Bill will force the party to make a choice on who has the final say on a deal withg Europe.

A Party Manifesto has many functions. But rarely is it called upon to paper over the cracks between a party and its supporters. But Labour’s was – between its Eurosceptic leadership and its pro-EU support base. Bad news for those who prefer their political parties to face at any given moment in only one direction. But a forthcoming parliamentary vote will force the party to make its position clear.

The piece of legislation that makes us members of the EU is the European Communities Act 1972. “Very soon” – says the House of Commons Library – we will see a Repeal Bill that will, according to the Queen’s Speech, “repeal the European Communities Act.” It will be repealed, says the White Paper for the Repeal Bill, “on the day we leave the EU.”

It will contain a clause stating that the bit of the bill that repeals the European Communities Act will come into force on a date of the Prime Minister's choosing. But MPs will have to choose whether to vote for that clause. And this is where Labour’s dilemma comes into play.

In her Lancaster House speech Theresa May said:

“I can confirm today that the Government will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament, before it comes into force.”

Later that day David Davis clarified May’s position, saying, of a vote against the final deal:

“The referendum last year set in motion a circumstance where the UK is going to leave the European Union, and it won’t change that.” 

So. The choice the Tories will give to Parliament is between accepting whatever deal is negotiated or leaving without a deal. Not a meaningful choice at all given that (as even Hammond now accepts): “No deal would be a very, very bad outcome for Britain.”

But what about Labour’s position? Labour’s Manifesto says:

“Labour recognises that leaving the EU with ‘no deal’ is the worst possible deal for Britain and that it would do damage to our economy and trade. We will reject ‘no deal’ as a viable option.”

So, it has taken that option off the table. But it also says:

“A Labour approach to Brexit also means legislating to guarantee that Parliament has a truly meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal (my emphasis).”

Most Brexit commentators would read that phrase – a meaningful vote – as drawing an implicit contrast with the meaningless vote offered by Theresa May at Lancaster House. They read it, in other words, as a vote between accepting the final deal or remaining in the EU.

But even were they wrong, the consequence of Labour taking “no deal” off the table is that there are only two options: leaving on the terms of the deal or remaining. Labour’s Manifesto explicitly guarantees that choice to Parliament. And guarantees it at a time when the final deal is known.

But here’s the thing. If Parliament chooses to allow Theresa May to repeal the European Communities Act when she wants, Parliament is depriving itself of a choice when the result of the deal is known. It is depriving itself of the vote Labour’s Manifesto promises. And not only that - by handing over to the Prime Minister the decision whether to repeal the European Communities Act, Parliament is voluntarily depriving itself of the power to supervise the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May will be able to repeat the Act whatever the outcome of those negotiations. She won’t be accountable to Parliament for the result of her negotiations – and so Parliament will have deprived itself of the ability to control them. A weakened Prime Minister, without a mandate, will have taken back control. But our elected Parliament will not.

If Labour wants to make good on its manifesto promise, if Labour wants to control the shape of Brexit, it must vote against that provision of the Repeal Bill.

That doesn’t put Labour in the position of ignoring the referendum vote. There will be ample time, from October next year when the final deal is known, for Labour to look at the Final Deal and have a meaningful vote on it.

But if Labour supports the Repeal Bill it will be breaching a clear manifesto promise.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues. 

0800 7318496