Purnell offers Labour a way forward on welfare

Purnell's vision of a narrower but deeper welfare state deserves attention from Miliband.

James Purnell has long been one of Labour's brightest and best thinkers, so it is right that his intervention on welfare policy has received significant attention. The former work and pensions secretary followed up his Times article (£) with a film for last night's Newsnight in which he outlined his proposal to recast the welfare state as a "protection state".

If people are to "fall back in love" with the welfare state, he said, it must offer benefits that they actually value. To this end, Purnell suggested a job guarantee for those unemployed for more than a year (those who refuse to work will lose their benefits), wage protection - the unemployed could receive up to 70 per cent of previous earnings for up to six months - and free childcare. To pay for all it, we should cut back on those benefits - free bus passes, free TV licences, the winter fuel allowance - that many, not least the well off, do not value. Even universal child benefit, Purnell says, should no longer be considered sacred. Alongside this, he argues, we should reassert the contributory principle by, for instance, ensuring that those who pay in receive a higher pension than those who do not.

After all, it was Beveridge who declared 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."

The real question, as the Spectator's Peter Hoskin suggested yesterday, is whether any of Purnell's ideas will be taken up by the Labour leadership. Ed Miliband has long defended "middle class benefits" on the grounds that, as Richard Titmuss put it, "services for the poor will always be poor services". He opposed the government's decision to withdraw child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers and warned it not to cut the winter fuel allowance. By contrast, Purnell declares: "I have never bought the argument that universal benefits bind the middle classes in. It feels too much like taxing with one hand to give back with another."

It is Miliband who is closest to his party's centre of gravity. Most Labour activists are dismayed by the thought of cutting back the benefits that Blair and Brown championed for so long. Ken Livingstone, one suspects, spoke for many when he tweeted last night: "James Purnell on Newsnight saying maybe we shld end free bus passes. Must be fought all the way. It is a political dead end for Labour."

Miliband has, however, shown an interest in reviving the contributory principle. In his speech on responsibility last month, he argued that services such as housing should not only prioritise those in the greatest need but also those who contribute the most to their communities, be it through volunteering or employment. Whether he will consider some of Purnell's more heretical proposals remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that, as Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, observed, "Labour is behind on welfare reform. It must get back in front". Purnell's vision of a narrower but deeper welfare state offers one way to do so.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496