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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.