The Tories are hurting, not helping the working class

Behind the government's rhetoric, things aren't getting better for working people. They’re getting much, much worse.

I normally enjoy a good Fraser Nelson column. But last Friday’s, which argued the Tories are the party for working people, was frankly delusional. I thought it was a spoof. Reading it, I wish Mr Nelson had been out on the doorstep with me and Labour’s Victora Groulef in Reading East on Thursday.

After an excellent afternoon knocking on doors, we came to the last house in the street and met a lady who summed up the Tories’ problem. She was a teaching assistant and her husband ran a small building firm. She had never voted Labour before, but now she was all ears. She was profoundly disillusioned with David Cameron. Her husband’s building business had taken a hammering and the banks were proving a nightmare. And she was tired of reading about government attacks on teaching assistants like her who she knows make a huge difference to her school’s ability to personalise education for youngsters and transform standards.

Our friend’s story captured the truth that the Tories are now profoundly hurting, not helping Britain’s working classes. It didn’t get a lot of comment, but last week we saw figures showing that in the first full year of this government, inequality has begun to spiral up – and this before the new bank bonus round Ed Miliband raised in the Commons, or this year’s huge cuts to tax credits, or this year’s whopping tax cut for Britain’s richest citizens. The reality is Britain’s aspirational classes have been left high and dry by the Tories. 

Let’s start with the engine room of aspirational Britain: our small business community. I’ve started a small business. I know what a roller coaster it is. And I know just how critical a friendly bank can be. Small business is the key to reducing unemployment. In fact, as Labour’s Toby Perkins recently pointed out, 90 per cent of people moving from unemployment into private sector employment do so with small businesses. But right now, the government’s comprehensive failure to tackle the bank lending crisis is suffocating enterprise. Business lending has fallen in every quarter of the last two years not least because our banking sector is so uncompetitive; 89 per cent of all our businesses are locked into the five big banks. That’s why Ed Miliband and Chuka Umunna launched the report of our small business taskforce with a commitment to introduce a new system of regional banks - banks that only lend to businesses within a defined community - to support small business, modelled on Germany’s successful Sparkassen.

Or let’s take education. Alan Milburn, the government’s social mobility tsar, last week published figures revealing the shockingly low levels of state school students admitted by Russell Group universities. The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has attacked the reality that "unseen" pupils from poor backgrounds are being let down. The clock is going backwards.

Yet for all his bluster, Michael Gove is focusing his attention elsewhere. He is presiding over a system that is radically centralising and radically fragmenting our school system. That’s why we need a very different kind of reform. As Stephen Twigg argued last week, the success of the schools in Shanghai shows strong oversight at local level is vital to sharing best practice. And as Andreas Schleicher of the OECD has pointed out, there is a strong correlation between collaborative culture and system success. Sir Michael Wilshaw made much the same point, signalling strong support for the plan set out by Stephen last Monday.

Stephen made a powerful case: wherever school freedom promotes higher standards we will extend those freedoms to all schools. We must make sure "no school is left behind." A school should not have to change its status to earn the permission to innovate. There needs to be stronger oversight of local standards – and a proper effort to foster collaboration. That adds up to a radical devolution of power, rather than the centralisation now underway in Whitehall. And to this we have to add radical change to the curriculum with a technical baccalaureate to provide a bridge from school to high-quality apprenticeships and into work for the 50 per cent of our children who don’t chose to go to university.

Or let’s take welfare reform. The challenge for welfare reformers is not whether you can dream a dream. It’s whether you can deliver. For all their tough talk about "welfare reform", the reality is that the benefits bill is rising by £20bn more than planned because David Cameron is doing nothing to address the long-term drivers of social security spending. And right now the welfare revolution we were promised is simply falling apart.

Just last Thursday, we heard stories that the National Audit Office is profoundly troubled by the state of Universal Credit. There are supposed to be a million people on the system in 10 months' time. But right now, the virtues of Universal Credit are enjoyed by just a few people in Tameside. Or take the work programme. Nice idea in theory. Failing in practice. The latest figures show nearly a million people have flowed though the programme and not even started a job, never mind kept one. Worse, for those in their 50s, who have paid a fortune in National Insurance, there is no additional support available when they become unemployed. They’re lumped in with everyone else. Result? Long-term unemployment is higher among those who have paid in the most. That isn’t fair.

Labour is proposing a radical alternative. A 'triple lock' on welfare spending with an overall cap on the budget, a household benefit cap and a limit of two years to the time you can spend on the dole. But we’ll back this with a jobs guarantee that will channel investment into support for private sector jobs for young people and the long-term unemployed. Labour councils all over Britain are trialling the idea and it’s proving an incredible success. And we’ll move to put the something for something back into social security with extra help to find work for those who’ve cared for others or paid in for a lifetime.

Last year, Norman Tebbit attacked the government’s "abiding sin" of simply seeming "unable to manage its affairs competently". A year on, things aren't getting better for working people. They’re getting much, much worse. I fear Mr Nelson has fallen for the oldest con trick in politics: the rhetoric-reality gap. He might like the government’s rhetoric, but the reality is it's now Labour which has the plan to be realistic with money – but radical with reform. 

Michael Gove speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle