Why Labour is right to consider a salary insurance scheme

A welfare system that provides greater support to people when they need it most offers an alternative to the divisive pose bring struck by the coalition.

On Sunday, the Observer reported that Labour are considering an IPPR proposal to establish a system of National Salary Insurance (NSI). This would offer working people who have contributed into the benefits system, but have lost their job, much greater income protection at the point they need it most. The twist on the proposal – which has provoked most reaction – is that to control the costs of the system, the extra money provided would be recouped once people are back in employment.

To clear up one thing straight away: this proposal is in addition to existing entitlements to Jobseeker's Allowance (we do not want to turn JSA into a loan). This means that, contrary to one claim, it wouldn’t mean people who hadn’t worked get more than those who had.

In our original proposal, we suggested that the additional amount available might be £132.50 a week for six months, providing people with £200 a week in total, including their £67.50 in JSA (which has actually now risen to £71.70 a week). These numbers could be altered, but the core rationale is three threefold.

First, for anyone earning much above minimum wage, the benefits system offers very weak protection of their income for short-term, temporary periods of unemployment. For instance, social security provides just 38 per cent of the previous average wage for a single person who also qualifies for help with rent. This compares to an EU average of 58 per cent. For those not eligible for housing support, such as the two-thirds of homeowners, the replacement rate for average earners is just 13 per cent. And it’s not that the private insurance market is filling the gap: a survey published last week by Scottish Widows found that only 5 per cent of people own an income protection policy, which would pay out if they lose their job.

The second rationale for NSI directly flows from the first: the popular legitimacy crisis facing the welfare system is not only about the sense that it pays out too much to people who have not worked, but also that it offers so little protection to those who have. A decade and a half of welfare reform has focused on increasing the conditions attached to the receipt of benefits, but has neglected the erosion of any meaningful reward for the contributions of those who have worked (outside of the state pension). Labour is right to alight on this issue as part of developing a strategic alternative to the populist and divisive pose bring struck by the current government on welfare.

However, the challenge in seeking to improve income protection and rebuild the contributory principle is that it costs money. This is where the third rationale comes in. Deploying the income-contingent loan principle in NSI means that greater security at the point of crisis can be improved without imposing considerable extra net costs. In other words, the social security system would add a new function: smoothing household income to help people to cope with the loss of a wage, keeping them out of the hands of payday lenders and loan sharks, while reclaiming the money once they are back on their feet.

Some have argued that repayment will create a disincentive for people to return to work. Clearly this risk should be monitored on implementation, and the point at which repayments began and the repayment rate could be amended to reduce this concern. But over half of people who claim JSA leave the benefit within three months; 80 per cent after a further three months. Conditionality would continue to apply, so people would be required to take up job offers (or lose access to NSI) and if they hadn’t found employment in six months they would revert to the much lower level of JSA (a strong incentive to find work within that period). Fundamentally, this policy is explicitly aimed at people who have a good work record and so are motivated and job ready.

Critics of this idea have questioned why the extra income protection provided by NSI cannot be attained simply by increasing the level of contributory JSA. The problem of course is where the money would come from (we estimated the upfront cost at somewhere between £1.8bn and £2.6bn, though it is hard to be precise). One option is redistributing money from within the existing social security budget, perhaps by lower disregards or sharper tapers on Universal Credit (or, of course, ending the protection of pensioner benefits). Alternatively, the costs could be met by extra departmental cuts, more borrowing or higher taxes. But it is highly unlikely that any party will cut public services or raise taxes to pay for a higher rate of JSA (especially with £21bn of welfare cuts that some want to see reversed potentially ahead of this in the queue).

Given all this, those of us interested in building up economic protection for working people should probably bank on having to be creative.

A National Salary Insurance system would provide people with £200 a week for six months after they become unemployed. Photograph: Getty Images.

Graeme Cooke is Associate Director at IPPR

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.