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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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