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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories