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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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.