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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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition