How 'Facebook welfare' could reshape the benefits system

Putting social relationships, rather than the impersonal state, at the heart of the welfare system offers a route out of the negative debate about ‘scroungers’.

Generous benefits stop people working. That view, crudely put, is at the centre of the political debate about contributory welfare and benefit ‘scroungers’. It also explains why financial support for unemployed people in the UK is among the most meagre in the developed world. Stingy benefits give people little choice other than to get back to work as quickly as possible: nine in ten unemployed people are back in work within a year.

But for many workers, meagre benefits and tough sanctions create problems. A big drop in living standards during unemployment affords skilled workers no time to find jobs that put their skills to productive use – something that would benefit them, their employer and the taxpayer. It makes little economic sense to push our computer programmers into the nearest retail job just to save the state £71.70 per week in Jobseeker’s Allowance. The trouble is that while higher benefit levels would alleviate this problem, they would compromise work incentives.

There is a way to get the best of both worlds. By 2018, tens of millions of employees will be saving in a private pension thanks to auto-enrolment. That offers an opportunity to build an integrated system of pensions and unemployment savings – one that doesn’t risk diminishing people’s already low rainy-day savings in favour of retirement saving. Let’s call it a lifecycle account.

On hitting unemployment, benefits would automatically be topped-up to 70 per cent of a person’s prior earnings for up to six months, funded from their personal lifecycle account. They would get time to look for the right job, and in spending their own retirement money, jobseekers would have strong incentives to strike the right balance between taking a job today versus a better one tomorrow.

Can this approach tackle the sense that people who’ve not worked enough get “something for nothing” from welfare? Yes, but it will mean putting social relationships – rather than the impersonal state - at the heart of the benefits system.

Account holders would have to nominate three guarantors from their friends or family. They could go into the red while unemployed, giving them a better level of financial support. But their guarantors would be liable to repay a proportion of the money borrowed if their friend failed to find work and repay the cash.

People would be better supported in early unemployment, but in return their closest friends and family would have a direct interest in their work search activities. Harnessing the power of social networks, you might even call it ‘Facebook welfare’.

There is a route out of the negative debate about ‘scroungers’ but it will take a radical rethink of contributory welfare, putting compassionate obligation at the heart of the 21st century welfare state.  

People enter the Jobcentre Plus office in Bath. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories