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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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

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