Labour's challenge is to show that it has the best plan to control welfare spending

The party needs a "social investment" strategy to reduce the subsidisation of private landlords, low-paying employers and long-term worklessness.

When George Osborne used his new year political message to raise the prospect of a further £12bn of cuts to working age benefits, it confirmed that the Conservatives will put welfare at the centre of their re-election strategy. In a speech at the IPPR today, Rachel Reeves will set out her first response to this challenge as part of a series of interventions from the Labour frontbench to connect their arguments about the "cost of living crisis" to the need for longer term social and economic reform.

Having signed up to the principle of a cap on structural welfare spending, the priority for Labour is to contest the debate about which party has the best strategy for sustainably controlling rises in the benefits bill and squeezing the greatest value from taxpayers' money. This requires a "social investment" strategy to reduce the subsidisation of private landlords, low-paying employers and long-term worklessness. The goal should be, over time, to shift spending from cash transfers and into housebuilding, childcare, apprenticeships and back to work support. As Ed Miliband argued last week, Britain has to earn its way to higher living standards.

A political direction of this kind can also be connected to Labour’s stated interest in reviving the contributory principle within the welfare system. In most of continental Europe, a distinction remains between social insurance (protection from cyclical risks for those who have contributed) and social assistance (means-tested support to those on the lowest incomes). However, over a number of decades, these two functions have been almost entirely conflated in this country. Restoring the distinction would mean aiming to reduce reliance on the state for permanent income replacement wherever possible, while strengthening temporary protection at key moments when earned income drops, like losing a job and having a child.

Marrying social investment and the contributory principle in this way would require a significant re-engineering of social policy, re-orientating of public spending, plus institutional innovation to revive the currently moribund National Insurance system. As part of IPPR’s Condition of Britain programme, we are exploring how such a strategy could be advanced, within the constraints of plausible fiscal scenarios for the next Parliament.

One option is to expand the role of income-contingent loans in providing much more substantial support to those who have contributed into the system if and when they face a drop income due to job loss, on a temporary and repayable basis. Our proposal for National Salary Insurance is one variant on this idea. Another is to provide a higher rate of short-term benefit for those who lose their job after having paid into the system, funded by increasing the number of years of contribution required before this entitlement kicks in. This could be modelled on Statutory Maternity Pay, which pays a much higher rate for the first six weeks – and is only available to those women who worked before having a child.

In the coming months, we will be analysing ideas such as these with a view to setting out practical, costed proposals for shifting to social investment and restoring the contributory principle. This will also include looking at how drawing a clearer distinction between the "social insurance" and "social assistance" tracks could affect the back to work support people receive and their interactions with the welfare system. We also want to explore how the institutional architecture of the National Insurance Fund – which evokes a tradition of mutual protection in this country – could be revived to help this task.

It is clear that the debate about benefits will be at the forefront of the political battleground over the coming year. It is vital that those of us committed to a resilient and effective welfare system advance feasible reforms that can chime with popular values, as well as defending against the worst attacks on vulnerable people.

Graeme Cooke is Research Director at IPPR

Members of the public in north London walk past a poster informing of changes to the benefits and tax system that came into effect in April 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Graeme Cooke is Associate Director at IPPR

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.