The problem with welfare reform? It's the market, not the benefits cap

Labour should focus on reforming the market to support the vulnerable without being labeled as profl

Labour should focus on reforming the market to support the vulnerable without being labeled as profligate.

Amanda Jacobs (not her real name) lives down the road from me in Peckham. It's a classic inner London location where deprivation soars as high as the rents. The state pays £900 a month to keep her and her daughter in a tiny, damp flat with failing heating. With 20,000 people on the waiting list, there's not much chance of a council house, and the jobs she's qualified to do would almost certainly leave her worse off.

"I want to work, and I've been looking," she says, "But there's no way I could afford the rent if I lost my benefit, and I have to think about her (my daughter) -- I don't want her changing schools again."

Talking to Amanda, you can't deny that some of the right's critique is spot on. It's true that the threat of losing benefit stops you working. It's true that paying £192bn a year in welfare is outrageous when you're trying to decrease debt. And it's true that the public is running out of sympathy for families like hers. Perhaps that's partly why in a week when the Tories have been talking about capping benefit, they have gained a five-point poll lead over Labour.

So what does the left do? It would fail people like Amanda to follow the coalition and suddenly limit their benefits. As Randeep Ramesh helpfully points out, the government itself acknowledges that this move is likely to increase child poverty and detrimentally affect some disabled groups and even those in work. But the left will also fail people if it leaves them in a position where work doesn't pay.

The answer is not to simply accept a watered down version of the government's proposals that allow a higher cap for higher rent areas like London, or even to just exclude child benefit from the equation. The answer is to change the market as well as the state.

First, we need to understand that the disincentive to work doesn't just come from high benefits from the public sector. It also comes from low wages in the private sector. For most people on benefits, the only jobs available are low skilled, badly paid, insecure and part time. If you had a living wage, regular hours and a chance of rising up through a company, you would be more likely to come off benefits, not because of the threat of eviction, but because of the rewards of employment.

Second, you need stricter regulation on the scandal that is the private rented sector. There is no way that Amanda's flat is worth £900 a month. In a world where housing is limited and ownership concentrated, we need much tighter regulation that so far we're failing to get. Otherwise we're just wasting our money and vulnerable people are still living in substandard housing.

Finally, we also need to promote alternative models of home ownership that give people a stake in where they live. Co-operatives, mutuals and community land trusts need to be much more accessible. What's happening in Rochdale -- where they have just created the largest housing mutual in the country -- is interesting. The left should remember its past and learn from it.

So the problem with welfare reform isn't so much the benefits cap, it's the failure to look at the problems of the market as well as the state. What I wanted to get across on the Sunday Politics this week but didn't have space to, is that the Tories have nothing to say about this. Reforming the market is fertile ground for Labour if the party wants to support the vulnerable without being labeled as profligate. And perhaps most importantly, such measures wouldn't just support Amanda, they'd also leave her more empowered.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.
 

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain