Nick Pearce: Why the left is wrong on welfare

Can the left learn from the right?

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

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

Tags:Welfare