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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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.