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.

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Why is Theresa May wasting time and money on the Article 50 case?

The Prime Minister has wasted time, money and weakened her position for no good reason. 

The question of who has the power to pull the Article 50 trigger – the executive or the legislature – is still rumbling at the Supreme Court, but yesterday’s vote renders the matter somewhat otiose. 

461 MPs voted in favour of a motion supporting the government’s timetable for triggering Article 50, with just 89 dissidents, with 23 Labour MPs and Ken Clarke joining Caroline Lucas, the nine Liberal Democrats and the SNP in voting against the motion. 

“MPs hand May 'blank cheque' for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s splash. “Hooray! MPs say yes to EU exit” roars the Express. “Victory for PM: Commons backs May on Brexit” is the i’s take. “Day MPs spoke for Britain” is the Mail’s splash, while the Guardian goes for the somewhat more sedate “MPs back government timetable to trigger Article 50” below the fold.

But that doesn’t mean that the deliberations of David Neuberger and the rest of the Court don’t matter. If the Court rules that Article 50 does represent a loss of rights not provided for in the referendum, that requires a vote of the legislature – and that means both houses of Parliament and an full Act of Parliament. 

It’s entirely possible that the Supreme Court could rule that Article 50 does entail a loss of rights BUT that the legislature had already weighed in by voting to have a referendum – Neuberger described this as the “hole” in the claimants’ case – but the whole affair raises questions of Theresa May’s judgement. It’s not clear what the government has gained by appealing a judgement rather than seeking parliamentary approval. It is clear that the government has wasted both money and time on the court case, when a parliamentary majority was always at hand.

There's a bigger risk to the PM, too. If the Supreme Court judgement limits executive power further, or rules that not only Westminster, but the devolved legislatures, must also vote on whether to pull the Article 50 trigger, the PM’s pugnacious manner could put Brexit – and her premiership – in some jeopardy. 

TROUBLE AHEAD

Speaking of the PM…Theresa May is interviewed in today’s FT by George Parker and Lionel Barber. Among the topics: why she gave George Osborne the push, whether or not she’s a “control freak”, and why she once compared herself to Elizabeth I. 

But the striking moment is the brief appearance of the old Remain-backing May, with her warning that the nations of the EU27 “don’t want to see others looking to break away and to vote to leave in the way the UK has done” making the negotiations over Britain’s Brexit deal trickier than many – including May herself – are often willing to admit publicly. 

DERAILING GRAYLING

Chris Grayling is under fire after the Evening Standard’s Pippa Crerar revealed that he blocked Sadiq Khan’s takeover of London’s suburban railways not in order to look out for passengers, but to keep his grubby Labour hands off it. Bob Neil, the Conservative MP for Bromley, demanded that Theresa May sack the Transport Secretary at PMQs yesterday. Over at CityMetric, Jonn is very angry about the whole thing.

SO, EVERYONE, THEN? 

Another Theresa May interview, this time with Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth in the Spectator. She has some sharp words for the Civil Service, accusing officials of trying to second-guess her and to quantify everything. Particularly exercising her: Whitehall’s attempt to quantify what the “just managing” she wants to help means in terms of income (£18k-£21k).  She says it means anything from “holding down two or three jobs in order to make ends meet”, to those worried about job security, to homeowners “worried about paying the mortgage”.

SLING YOUR HYKE

Polls are open in the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election, an ultra-safe Conservative seat that voted to leave the European Union by 60 per cent to 40 per cent. But all attention is being focused on the battle for second and third place, with Ukip expecting to steal second from Labour. Meanwhile, Labour fears they may be pushed into fourth by the Liberal Democrats.

OUR STEEL, SAVED?
A deal has been struck to save the steelworks at Port Talbot, with Tata Steel commiting to keep production there running, provided that workers agree to close off the pension scheme they inherited from British Steel to new workers. “Tata and unions agree rescue plan for Port Talbot steelworks” is the FT’s splash.

MATTE-OH

Matteo Renzi has officially resigned as Italian Prime Minister after two-and-a-half years, the fourth-longest serving PM in the history of the Republic. 

DFID CONSULTANCIES

Private consultancies working in international development will be forced to disclose their fees and salaries, Priti Patel has vowed after a Timesinvestigation into the millions spent on consultancies by the department. 

SEE? IMMIGRATION CREATES JOBS

The Home Affairs Select Committee will launch an inquiry into public attitudes to immigration today. Committee chair Yvette Cooper says that it will be “a different kind of inquiry, looking outward at the country, not inward at the government.” MPs will tour the country talking to the public about the issue. 

DOMINIC, AGGRIEVED

Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney-General, has called on Theresa May to dissociate herself from the Mail’s “vitriolic abuse” of judges in the Supreme Court case. Anushka Asthana has the story in the Guardian.

CAMERON, INC

David Cameron has set up a limited company to manage his speaking engagements and private ventures in retirement. He has also sold his memoirs, albeit for what is believed to be a lower fee than that secured by Tony Blair for The Journey. Michael Savage has the story in the Times.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Christmas is coming! And the Christmas sandwich is already here. The NS team – including our editor – share their thoughts on the best and the worst.

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This originally appeared in today's Morning Call: get it in your inboxes Monday through Friday - sign up here.

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