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?

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.