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.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.