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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser