Nick Pearce: Why the left is wrong on welfare

Can the left learn from the right?

Nick Pearce welcomes me into his London office. In his blue shirt and glasses, the director of IPPR has the “comfortable dad” look. He has just published an 11-page essay in Juncture, the think tank’s journal, in which he outlines his vision for welfare reform.

Pearce argues that we should stop fussing about with abstract measuring standards and focus instead on improving schools, hospitals and local buildings; that inequality extends beyond what people earn to the way they are treated by their bosses at work; that paternalism doesn’t help anyone because it takes power away from people.

Pearce, as my colleague Rafael Behr puts it, is known for “getting under the bonnet” of policy. He worked as a policy adviser to Gordon Brown when Brown was prime minister. A “thoroughly nice nerd”, he is widely credited with having revitalised IPPR.

His big idea is that the left has missed the point on welfare because it is too scared to co-opt ideas that usually belong to the right, such as individualism and conservation. Achieving a more equal society is a huge project – and it’s not just about wealth redistribution. “For example,” Pearce writes in his essay, “how might a commitment to equality need to be bolstered, or tempered, by demands for personal liberty, democratic self-government, the priority of human relationships, or the desire to protect and conserve things of value to people?”

Recent welfare reforms, he argues, are wrong-headed, because they did not work hard enough to embrace personal autonomy. “[T]housands of people now suffer repeated benefit sanctions and prolonged periods without an income, often for the most minor infractions of job search requirements,” he says.

We need to change our basic power relations, but to do this we need a groundswell of public energy. “What is it that really gets people politically engaged, excited and pissed off in equal measure? It tends not to be formal procedures,” Pearce says. “It’s about issues, it’s about the passions that underpin politics. I think that people are on the left because you’re trying to achieve certain things.”

Towards the end of our conversation, I ask him about his hobbies. “I look after [our] children . . . I watch more CBeebies than Newsnight, let’s put it that way.”

And is this influencing his world-view?

Immediately, he is back on message. “It does influence how I think . . . If you tried to close the children’s centres where my children go, we would chain ourselves to the railings. But people have had their child benefit and other things cut and that’s been achieved without the same level of protest.”

The reason for this, he says, is that it’s much easier to care about something you can see.

Nick Pearce’s essay is available in the next issue of Juncture and here in the New Statesman

A sign advertises changes to the welfare system. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.