Our welfare system is broken, but Labour and the Tories just trade myths

Rather than arguing about policy and practice, both parties encourage a futile debate about motivation and motive.

The first half of this parliamentary term was dominated by an economic argument that, in political terms, Labour lost. That doesn’t mean the Ed Balls's position on the deficit and debt has necessarily been the wrong one. Learned economists share the shadow chancellor’s analysis that premature austerity risks suffocating growth. Balls warned there would be a double-dip recession and there was.

But there has not been much reward for that foresight. Opinion polls show voters still inclined to accept the coalition’s explanations for missed fiscal targets and unscheduled stagnation – a derelict Labour legacy and turbulence washing in from the rest of Europe. The Tories act as if economic misfortune is a force of nature visited upon them rather than the product of their own policy misjudgement. Labour, meanwhile, are marooned between the forward-facing argument about who is best equipped to navigate through the storm and the backward-facing one about whether the storm might have been avoided.

Much of the economic argument in Westminster over the past two years has been predicated on mutually sustaining myths, one Labour and one Conservative. I mean "myth" not as in a malicious falsehood but in the sense of a moral parable that might be rooted in real world observation but whose real purpose is to galvanise tribal faith.

The Tory one is that the only feasible fiscal path immediately after the last election was the one laid out in George Osborne’s "emergency Budget" of June 2010. Any alternative, goes the story, would have led to "Greek-style" catastrophe, a flight of international investors from UK bonds, meltdown, apocalypse.

This was never true. Markets wanted certainty that there would be some determination to address the UK’s fiscal problems. But demonstration of will was what mattered, not acceleration of the austerity timetable. Osborne could have entered the Treasury and promised with the requisite level of portentous ceremony to implement Alastair Darling’s pre-election budget plans. The sky would not have fallen in.

The new Chancellor took a more aggressive path for two political reasons. First, he hoped to cast Labour as the party of reckless profligacy. Second, he wanted to get budget consolidation out of the way faster so as to fight a cash giveaway election in 2015. The first part of the plan worked; the second didn’t.

The Labour myth is that Osborne’s political gamble entirely explains why recovery turned to recession and why there is misery in Britain today. The implication in Balls’s "too far too fast" line is that somewhere in the gap between Darling’s proposed deficit reduction timetable and the one Osborne tried (and failed) to implement, was enough cash stimulus to pump vigour into the economy. There wasn’t. Darling envisaged austerity-lite; it still would have looked and tasted like austerity. It still would have hurt. It is entirely possible that the gentler gradient on Darling’s graph would have made all the difference to growth prospects but, come 2015, that will be an academic hypothesis to exercise economics students. It is not the kind of argument that persuades swing voters.

Now that the Osborne timetable is in tatters, Labour and the Tories are not as far apart on the economy as they seem. Balls has explicitly acknowledged the need for fiscal constraint and Osborne has accepted that austerity alone cannot restore growth to the economy and that investment must be brought forward. Labour are reluctant deficit hawks; the Tories are timid dabblers in Keynesian stimulus. It would be silly to suggest that there is some secret consensus emerging but it has also suited the Chancellor and his shadow to depict each other at polar extremes of an ideological spectrum when in fact they don’t. It has suited public enlightenment and intelligent debate less.

And now, with the forthcoming battle over welfare cuts, a similar pattern is emerging. The second half of the parliament will be dominated by more mythological warfare, this time over the benefits bill.

The Tory myth is that Labour is only interested in handing out money for people to sit around doing nothing; that there is no willingness to reform the welfare system. This is a subset of the fiction that Balls doesn’t intend to reduce the deficit. As senior Labour figures point out whenever they are given the opportunity, the party wants to reduce spending on out-of-work benefits and is unafraid to impose sanctions on those who refuse to take jobs when offered. That was Labour policy by the end of the last government and it is Labour policy now. (How popular it is with the party grass roots is another matter entirely.)

The Labour myth is that Conservatives are motivated entirely by the cynical urge to confiscate money from the poor and that, in cahoots with tabloid newspapers, they wilfully vilify those in receipt on benefits. That ignores the possibility that some Tories might sincerely believe that the welfare system they inherited was riddled with hypocrisies and injustices. They might believe it because it is true. It was ridiculous to funnel taxpayers' money into the pockets of rogue landlords through an unchecked housing benefit budget and it was dishonest, unfair and financially reckless to use incapacity benefit as a cash anaesthetic for people who might have been able to work if given the right training and incentives – positive and negative. (Those observations do not cease to be true just because there are greater injustices in the world and worse policy errors that should command more media/political attention.)

The welfare system is broken, not irredeemably but quite substantially. Labour knew it in office. The Tories know it now. The interesting question is what interventions are most effective in doing something about it. What works in terms of affordability and delivery of a just outcome? How should incentives be calibrated for different labour market conditions? That is not the debate we are likely to have over the next two years.

Instead we will have ever more desperate attempts by each side to force their opponents into the mythological template. Some on the Labour side will unintentionally help the Tories by denying that there is such a thing as cultural dependency on welfare and pretending that the only problem with the system is its lack of largesse. Some on the Tory side will help Labour by spraying indiscriminate spite at anyone who happens to be in receipt of state help and by appearing unmoved by the plight of Britain’s poor.

Everyone will be in favour of reform. But Labour will struggle to persuade the public that they have the courage to see it through and the Tories will struggle to convince anyone that they are compassionate enough to do it right. The argument will be about motivation and motive instead of policy and practice.

An important difference between this argument and the economic one that dominated the first half of the parliament is that the coalition parties have already spent much of their political capital. Osborne stole a march on Labour in June 2010. The Chancellor had the benefit of the doubt on his side - and the then still trusted Lib Dems cheerleading for him. The opposition was  reeling from defeat and only embarking on the process of electing a new leader. Now Ed Miliband leads a united party and has more political combat experience under his belt. 

It is, of course, quite possible for both sides to lose this argument. Labour could fail to shake off a reputation for throwing public money at people who are judged not to deserve it; the Tories could thoroughly restore their status as the party that sneers in the face of social destitution. How do we implement a social security system that provides for those in need, supports people out of work in their hunt for a job, doesn’t create perverse incentives to depend on the state for life, rewards enterprise, doesn’t stigmatise disadvantage, is fair and compassionate while also financially sustainable? To find the answer, look away from British politics now.

Goal posts stand in a children's park in the Gorton area of Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Brexit will hike energy prices - progressive campaigners should seize the opportunity

Winter is Coming. 

Friday 24th June 2016 was a beautiful day. Blue sky and highs of 22 degrees greeted Londoners as they awoke to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU.  

Yet the sunny weather was at odds with the mood of the capital, which was largely in favour of Remain. And even more so with the prospect of an expensive, uncertain and potentially dirty energy future. 

For not only are prominent members of the Leave leadership well known climate sceptics - with Boris Johnson playing down human impact upon the weather, Nigel Farage admitting he doesn’t “have a clue” about global warming, and Owen Paterson advocating scrapping the Climate Change Act altogether - but Brexit looks set to harm more than just our plans to reduce emissions.

Far from delivering the Leave campaign’s promise of a cheaper and more secure energy supply, it is likely that the referendum’s outcome will cause bills to rise and investment in new infrastructure to delay -  regardless of whether or not we opt to stay within Europe’s internal energy market.

Here’s why: 

1. Rising cost of imports

With the UK importing around 50% of our gas supply, any fall in the value of sterling are likely to push up the wholesale price of fuel and drive up charges - offsetting Boris Johnson’s promise to remove VAT on energy bills.

2. Less funding for energy development

Pulling out of the EU will also require us to give up valuable funding. According to a Chatham House report, not only was the UK set to receive €1.9bn for climate change adaptation and risk prevention, but €1.6bn had also been earmarked to support the transition to a low carbon economy.

3.  Investment uncertainty & capital flight

EU countries currently account for over half of all foreign direct investment in UK energy infrastructure. And while the chairman of EDF energy, the French state giant that is building the planned nuclear plant at Hinkley Point, has said Brexit would have “no impact” on the project’s future, Angus Brendan MacNeil, chair of the energy and climate select committee, believes last week’s vote undermines all such certainty; “anything could happen”, he says.

4. Compromised security

According to a report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (the IEEP), an independent UK stands less chance of securing favourable bilateral deals with non-EU countries. A situation that carries particular weight with regard to Russia, from whom the UK receives 16% of its energy imports.

5. A divided energy supply

Brexiteers have argued that leaving the EU will strengthen our indigenous energy sources. And is a belief supported by some industry officials: “leaving the EU could ultimately signal a more prosperous future for the UK North Sea”, said Peter Searle of Airswift, the global energy workforce provider, last Friday.

However, not only is North Sea oil and gas already a mature energy arena, but the renewed prospect of Scottish independence could yet throw the above optimism into free fall, with Scotland expected to secure the lion’s share of UK offshore reserves. On top of this, the prospect for protecting the UK’s nascent renewable industry is also looking rocky. “Dreadful” was the word Natalie Bennett used to describe the Conservative’s current record on green policy, while a special government audit committee agreed that UK environment policy was likely to be better off within the EU than without.

The Brexiteer’s promise to deliver, in Andrea Leadsom’s words, the “freedom to keep bills down”, thus looks likely to inflict financial pain on those least able to pay. And consumers could start to feel the effects by the Autumn, when the cold weather closes in and the Conservatives, perhaps appropriately, plan to begin Brexit negotiations in earnest.

Those pressing for full withdrawal from EU ties and trade, may write off price hikes as short term pain for long term gain. While those wishing to protect our place within EU markets may seize on them, as they did during referendum campaign, as an argument to maintain the status quo. Conservative secretary of state for energy and climate change, Amber Rudd, has already warned that leaving the internal energy market could cause energy costs “to rocket by at least half a billion pounds a year”.

But progressive forces might be able to use arguments on energy to do even more than this - to set out the case for an approach to energy policy in which economics is not automatically set against ideals.

Technological innovation could help. HSBC has predicted that plans for additional interconnectors to the continent and Ireland could lower the wholesale market price for baseload electricity by as much as 7% - a physical example of just how linked our international interests are. 

Closer to home, projects that prioritise reducing emission through tackling energy poverty -  from energy efficiency schemes to campaigns for publicly owned energy companies - may provide a means of helping heal the some of the deeper divides that the referendum campaign has exposed.

If the failure of Remain shows anything, it’s that economic arguments alone will not always win the day and that a sense of justice – or injustice – is still equally powerful. Luckily, if played right, the debate over energy and the environment might yet be able to win on both.

 

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.