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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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt