Miliband must be bolder than Cameron on welfare reform

The Labour leader should look to reinvent the financing of all of the major pillars of the welfare state.

Ed Miliband’s self-identification with Margaret Thatcher has caught the imagination of many.  “She was a conviction politician and I think conviction really matters”, he has said.  Specifically she was able to rise “to the scale of challenge that the country faces” and “create a project that is genuinely going to make our economy work, not just for a few people but much more widely”.

The question is which challenge he would like to solve.  It’s not industrial relations this time.  In common with other developed nations, it is first the deficit and then the debt, and at the same time keeping the welfare state working effectively.    

The difficulty for all future political leaders of the UK is that the current structure of the welfare state will inexorably sweep away any reform efforts currently on the table.  The Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that net debt will bottom out at 60 per cent in 15 years’ time, which is still very high.  It will then reach 70 per cent in 2040, over 80 per cent in 2050 and over 100 per cent in 2060.  The big drivers of that increase will be health and pensions spending.  The net debt numbers of around 35 per cent in the 1990s and 2000s seem like a different world.

Other countries are better placed.  The Australian national debt will rise to only 20 per cent of GDP by 2050.  Like the UK, Australia guarantees all citizens health cover and a secure income in retirement.  Unlike the UK, the cost of paying for the welfare state is more evenly shared between Australian citizens and the government.  Australian citizens pay for nearly a third of health care themselves.  They contribute nearly 10 per cent of their income towards private pensions.   Four in five Australian pensioners receive a targeted state pension because of their other savings.  They also work longer: Australians retire at 65 against the UK norm of 63.

Some may see such a comparison as ideological.  Others will judge that “what counts is what works”.  The “project” is how to deliver security for households within a reasonable national budget constraint.  Speaking at the Labour Party conference, Liam Byrne said given the growth in the national debt, “savings are going to have to be made and I think there will be savings that are needed on welfare spending too”.

Others may say that it is politically impossible, or at the least so difficult that it should be left to future governments.  The trouble is that it will be even harder for those future governments: two in five voters today are aged over 55, rising to 45 per cent in 2020 and further after that.  The political window of opportunity is already narrowing.

Others will say that taxation should rise to meet the fiscal gap, and certainly some extra tax increases will be needed.  But this has to be kept in proportion because taxes on workers will already rise in future years as the tax base narrows (due to an ageing population).

As Thatcher drew up her industrial relations campaign, she was able to learn from the unsuccessful efforts of both the Wilson and Heath governments. Miliband can learn from the coalition’s fiscal policies. David Cameron has sought to limit the debate on the welfare state to changes to benefits for working-age people.  As a result his reforms will not rise “to the scale of the challenge that the country faces”, as measured by the fiscal position.  Miliband’s convictions should lead him to look wider and reinvent the financing of all of the major pillars of the welfare state.

Andrew Haldenby is director of the independent think-tank Reform.  Its new research report Entitlement Reform (#entitlementreform) is available at http://www.reform.co.uk/

Labour leader Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on 19 November 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”