Can Labour start a different conversation about benefits?

The public is very far away from embracing some of the ideas about the welfare state that social dem

The Labour Party faces a terrible dilemma dealing with the politics of welfare. That is one conclusion I took away from an event last night, run by the Fabian Society and the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), that I was lucky enough to chair.

The focus of the evening was a presentation by David Brady, associate professor of sociology at Duke University in North Carolina. Respondents on the panel were Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of the CPAG and Stephen Timms, shadow employment minister.

Brady's presentation distilled some of the arguments in his book Rich Democracies, Poor People: How Politics Explain Poverty - a comparative international study of the relationship between welfare systems, poverty and inequality.

At the risk of doing violence to Brady's thesis, I think I can summarise the gist as follows: spending on social security works. Countries that have higher welfare spending have lower rates of poverty. What is more, the wider social dividend of that outcome creates a positive feedback loop, building more consent for generous state support. By contrast, countries that develop a political discourse based on individual responsibility as the determinant of life chances - essentially the argument that personal failings, bad lifestyle choices are what hold people back - end up less equal and with more poverty. What is more, the cost of paying for that social failure (e.g. in increased crime and incarceration) outweighs the cost of a generous welfare system.

It was pretty compelling and, not surprisingly, popular with the Fabian audience. Much of the ensuing discussion focused on the political challenge of communicating these truths, held to be self-evident, to a sceptical British population. The Tories, it was argued, cheered on by the media, have successfully convinced the nation that money spent on benefits is being squandered, subsidising idleness.

Labour's job, by extension, should be rebutting those myths, defending universal benefits and robust state intervention to alleviate poverty. Stephen Timms did a valiant job of agreeing broadly with the moral consensus in the room, while delicately pointing out that the vast majority of the electorate are in a different place and that, under what was euphemistically referred to as "difficult financial circumstances", simply spending more on welfare was not on the agenda.

There was not much appetite in the room, I sensed, for a discussion of tough political choices presented by the obligation to bring down the budget deficit. No one raised the point in the audience. Only one person raised the question of whether it might at least be politically expedient to accommodate people's perceptions that there is inherent unfairness in the way benefits are currently paid out - sometimes appearing to reward inaction and penalise work.

It was, for the most part, a refreshing and insightful discussion, serving as a necessary corrective to some of the assumptions about the ineffectiveness of welfare spending that seem rapidly to be congealing into a political orthodoxy. That said, some recognition of Whitehall's woeful record of innovation and productivity in social spending would have balanced things out a bit. Not for nothing did ministers in the last Labour government complain (in private) that the money they were spending was "bouncing off" the bottom 10 per cent of recipients.

I came away distinctly pessimistic about the prospects for Labour developing a coherent position on this stuff. A Fabian Society audience is a very particular crowd, but often representative of the intellectual mood of the party. If last night's discussion is anything to go by this is very, very far away from the political mood of many people whose votes the party needs. Most Labour MPs I speak to recognise this problem. Their constituents are lapping up the government's tough rhetoric on welfare. The holy grail for Labour is a position that reassures the public that the benefits system is fair, not wasteful, rewards effort, does not offer something for nothing, while also meeting the high moral demands of activists who think any accommodation with Conservative language on this theme is craven capitulation to the forces of darkness.

Liam Byrne, shadow work and pensions secretary, is due to make a speech on Friday in which he tries to advance Labour's position. The thrust, I gather, will be that the welfare state, as originally conceived, was based on expectations of full employment and that any renewal of the welfare state should have the same goal in mind. The attack on the Tories is that they are dismantling social security, aiming to chase people off benefits and into work, but without honouring the implicit promise that there is work to do. This strikes me as sensible terrain for Labour to be marching on. As I argue in my column for the magazine this week, the government's failure to address unemployment and the likely bungling of reforms that are meant to make work a more attractive option than benefits will start to turn the tide of opinion on this issue. Labour can only capitalise if it has a clear position - and if it is united behind that position. That last point poses the greatest challenge.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.