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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A tale of two electorates: will rural France vote for Emmanuel Macron?

His chief rival, Marine Le Pen, was campaigning as the “candidate of the forgotten” years before Donald Trump entered politics.

It was a wet night in Paris, but hundreds of people were queuing outside the Antoine Theatre. It was standing room only to see Emmanuel Macron tonight, as it has been for weeks.

The 39-year-old former investment banker gave his usual energetic performance, delivering a well-practised pitch for a progressive, business-friendly and unabashedly pro-European France. His reward: a standing ovation and chants of Macron, président!

This theatre appearance on 8 March was an appropriate stop for a campaign that has been packed with more political drama than a series of House of Cards. Ahead of the first round of voting in the French presidential election on 23 April, the centrist independent has gone from underdog to the man most likely to beat the Front National’s Marine Le Pen. His other main rival, François Fillon of the right-wing Republicans, has been hampered by allegations that he paid his wife and children as parliamentary assistants, despite scant evidence of them doing any work.

Macron, meanwhile, has been attracting support from disenchanted voters on both left and right.

“It’s a new party, a new movement, a new face,” said Claire Ravillo-Albert, a 26-year-old human resources student and ex-Socialist in the queue outside the theatre. “We’re worlds away from the old Socialists and the Republicans here.”

Macron is not a typical outsider, having made millions in banking before serving as an advisor to François Hollande and as economy minister from 2014 to 2016. Nor can his ideas be described as radical. He is “of the left”, he says, but “willing to work with the right”.

For many he seems to embody an enticing alternative to the tired political class. Macron has never run for office before and if successful, would be the youngest president of the modern French republic. Many recruits to his one-year-old party En Marche! are young and relatively new to politics.

“I think he’ll change the French political landscape, and we need that,” said Olivier Assouline, a bank worker in an immaculate grey suit. “He knows business, he knows the state. I think he’s the right person at the right moment,” said the 44-year-old, who previously voted for right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy.

Many queuing for the rally were underwhelmed by Socialist achievements over the past five years – not least the dismal state of the economy – and had little enthusiasm for Fillon, a social conservative and economic Thatcherite.

Macron’s manifesto sticks firmly to the centre-ground. He has promised tax cuts for companies and millions of poor and middle-class families, as well as a few offbeat ideas like a one-off 500-euro grant for each 18-year-old to spend on books and cultural activities.

“With his central positioning, Macron is taking from everywhere – he has the capacity to seduce everyone,” says Frédéric Dabi, deputy director at the polling company IFOP. They estimate that Macron will take half the votes that went to Hollande when he won the last presidential election in 2012, and 17 per cent of those that went to runner-up Sarkozy.

Outside the theatre, the line was split between voters from the left and the right. But there was one word on almost everyone’s lips: Europe. At a time of continental soul-searching, Macron’s converts have chosen a candidate who backs the European Union as a guarantor of peace and celebrates free movement.

“He’s unusual in that he puts that centre-stage,” said Emma, a 27-year-old legal worker who preferred to be identified by her first name only. “Macron offers a good compromise on economic issues. But for me it’s also about Europe, because I think that’s our future.”

With Fillon and Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon both languishing behind in the polls, the second round of the presidential vote, on 7 May, is likely to be a contest between Macron and Le Pen. These are both candidates who claim to have moved beyond left-right politics, and who are both offering opposing visions of France.

This is also a tale of two electorates. Le Pen was campaigning as the “candidate of the forgotten” years before Donald Trump entered politics, traipsing around deindustrialised towns appealing to those who felt left behind by globalisation.

In the queue to see Macron were lawyers, PR consultants, graphic designers; students, gay couples and middle-class Parisians of multiple ethnicities. These are the representatives of a cosmopolitan, successful France. It was hard not to be reminded of the “metropolitan elite” who voted against Brexit.

Macron has called for investment in poorer communities, and his campaign staff pointedly invited onstage a struggling single mother as a warm-up act that night.

Yet his Socialist rival, Benoit Hamon, accuses him of representing only those who are doing pretty well already. It is hard for some to disassociate Macron from his education at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration – university of choice for the political elite – and his career at Rothschild. One infamous incident from early in the campaign sticks in the memory, when he told a pair of workers on strike: “You don’t scare me with your t-shirts. The best way to pay for a suit is to work.” For Macron, work has usually involved wearing a tie.

IFOP figures show him beating Le Pen soundly in when it comes to the voting intentions of executives and managers – 37 per cent to her 18 per cent. But when it comes to manual workers, she takes a hefty 44 per cent to his 17. He would take Paris; she fares better in rural areas and among the unemployed.

If Frédéric Dabi is to be believed, Macron’s bid for the centre-ground could pay off handsomely. But not everyone is convinced.

“He’s the perfect representative of the electorate in the big globalised cities,” the geographer Christophe Guilluy told Le Point magazine in January.

“But it’s the peripheries of France that will decide this presidential election.”