Labour should respond to Osborne's benefits cuts with a jobs guarantee

A jobs guarantee would allow Labour to defend benefits from a position that resonates with the public.

Osborne has set Labour a trap. As Rafael Behr clearly explains, either Labour supports the benefits changes that see devastating real-term cuts to the most vulnerable, or they are left arguing in the Commons in support of people on benefits, playing into the hands of the worst stereotypes of the party in terms of public spending and supporting so called "scroungers". So what to do?

The party has to be clear about one thing. Work is the best way to support people out of poverty and get the economy moving again. Labour. The clue is in the name. Talk to some members, and you would think the worst news from the Autumn Statement for poorer people were the benefit cuts. It wasn’t. The worst news for poorer people was that growth will be negative this year and stagnate for much longer than we thought. Without jobs, there is no hope.

The first point the party has rightly emphasised is that most people being hit by these benefit cuts will be in work. Ed Balls has been good at articulating this so far, breaking down the false stereotype the chancellor presents us with between "strivers" and "scroungers".

But I'm not talking about that argument, which I believe we've already won with the public. I'm talking about how we defend benefits for those who are out of work. The "strivers" who spend eight to ten hours a day applying for jobs without so much as a word back. How do we make their benefits seem fair to the working person who lives next door?

One answer - which I’m putting out for discussion rather than a definitive solution - is a jobs guarantee. If someone capable of working has been unable to find work in a year, then the state guarantees them a job and pays them at least the minimum wage. Labour shouldn't support any further erosion of benefits in parliament until that promise has been kept.

Evidence suggests that this scheme worked well under the Future Jobs Fund, which offered a six month placement to unemployed young people until the government axed it. In fact DWP’s own research showed it delivered a net benefit of £7,750 per participant. Others such as Stephen Timms and Richard Layard have researched what it would be like to extend it to all ages.

Putting this suggestion to someone in Ed’s office, they reasonably argued that it still does nothing for those people who are in work on benefits. That's true, and a devastatingly sad reality for those struggling to afford Christmas and pay their bills in the new year. But as I’ve argued before, pushing the living wage is a much better way of helping the working poor than subsidising low wage jobs through tax credits, particularly when money is tight. 

Obviously the most important reason for a jobs guarantee is that it gives people a chance to help themselves. But it also has strategic advantages. It shows that Labour is being constructive and allows us to defend benefits from a position that resonates with the public. At a time when there are so many more claimants than jobs, it shows the Conservatives up for hitting people who are desperate to find work but can't find it. And on a deeper and more fundamental level, it may even cause a rebellion among the Liberal Democrats and give them cause to side with us in the Commons, defeating the government’s present measures altogether.

Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls speak at a press conference at Labour headquarters. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder