Libertarianism for the rich, paternalism for the rest

The rich are trusted to make "intelligent" decisions, the rest have to be regulated.

Many will think that the spectre of a "surveillance state" conjured up by the government’s proposal for the real-time monitoring of email and social media will come to haunt the Conservatives.  At first sight, it is nothing but a brutal assault on civil liberties totally at odds with the conservative tradition; indeed, something worthy of the heavy-handed centralism of Gordon Brown. Still, this judgment merits further reflection - for rather than a total anomaly, such a paternalistic approach has already been applied to a subsection of British society. While the rich have enjoyed the light-touch of libertarian incentivising, the poor have been "regulated" by the current government.      

The coalition’s chosen approach to dealing with the causes of the recession, as well as the economic slump that came in its aftermath, was to "incentivise" - at least as far as the rich are concerned. The government did set out to reform the finance sector; it did so, however, through gentle nudging rather than an effective shove. The proposed "penalties" on the "greedy bankers" were set in terms of "mutual co-operation" and were largely undertaken on a voluntary basis.  Likewise, the attempt to revive the anaemic economy has been by way of incentives, most notably those proposed in the Budget. Cutting both corporation tax and the income tax of top earners was presented as a panacea expected to revive the economy, with business investment predicted to increase by 40 per cent. Similar aspirations, but very different methods, compared to the New Deal of FDR… only history will tell which approach is more effective.   

The government’s approach to incentivising employment on the supply side has been markedly different. The Welfare Reform Act replaced some perverse incentives not to work that were embedded in the old system with rather decisive regulations. For instance, neither the requirement for couples with children to increase their weekly work load to 24 hours in order to claim the working tax credit nor the household benefit cap - i.e., the limit of the total amount of benefit that working-age people can receive – can be readily interpreted as "gentle nudges". In a similar vein, the Mandatory Work Activity - the scheme mandating six to eight weeks unpaid work for up to 30 hours a week to those who "have little or no understanding of what behaviours are required to obtain and keep work" - is not in any way voluntary, as indeed is suggested in the name. In these cases, the government might be seen to be taking a rather paternalistic, or "nannying" approach. Of course, one could argue that there is nothing wrong with nannies, nor for that matter with father figures who know what is good for the kids. Still, with the government regulation in question, this approach should be applied consistently.   

When the government opened the Behavioural Insight Unit, its mission was presented as "finding intelligent ways to encourage people to make better choices for themselves". Some complained at the time that the idea of "nudge", central to its operations, was premised on the oxymoron of libertarian paternalism. Perhaps a bigger problem is that the libertarian element of choice and the paternalistic prescription were applied to two different social groups - the rich, with a bit of nudging, are to trusted to make "intelligent" decisions, the rest have to be regulated.

Patricia Kaszynska is a Senior Researcher at ResPublica

Youngsters play football up against a boarded-up pub in the Gorton area of Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Patricia Kaszynska is senior researcher and project manager as ResPublica.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.