Want to reduce the benefits bill? Encourage strikes

The Government should be helping strikers if they want to save money on tax credits.

The Government's plan to use the benefits system to punish low-paid workers for striking is more than just an astonishing attack on the right of the lowest-paid workers in Britain to strike. It is also a false economy.

The aim is ostensibly to reduce the benefit bill by not "subsidising" strikers who earn under £13,000, or whose strikes take their income below that level. Yet the only reason those strikers cost the benefit system anything is because we as a society understand that, to have an acceptable quality of life, you need to earn more than many jobs pay. As a result, we have a welfare state designed to top up the incomes of the poorest in society.

There are two ways to reduce that benefit bill. The first is to lower our standards when it comes to how we can accept the poorest living. In many other actions, the government have pursued this course – that's why we saw, for example, a cap on total benefits, which has the the effect of lowing the standard of living for anyone on benefits in central London with "too many" children. And its sort of what the government are doing in this case, telling strikers that they are prepared to countenance them having a worse standard of living than non-strikers.

But the other way to reduce the benefit bill is to make sure that people earn more. The higher someone's wage, the fewer benefits they can claim. And one of the best ways to do that is by encouraging strong unionisation.

The TUC reports (pdf) that unionised workers earn, on average, 12.5 per cent more than non-unionised ones. Clearly some causality goes both ways – many of the poorest workers are temps, for example, who find it extremely difficult to unionise – but it is inarguable that the union movement has resulted, in its hundreds of years of history, in massive material improvements to the living standards of the worst paid. And all of their success comes down, in the end, to the power of the strike.

Fewer strikers means weaker unions, and weaker unions means, eventually, worse paid workers. Which all plays back into a higher benefits bill for this and future Governments.

So if Iain Duncan Smith wants to attack the very concept of unions, he's going the right way about it, but if he wants to save his Government money, it's just another false economy.

A striking worker holds up a sign. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.