You can’t reduce poverty without an adequate welfare state

Labour is right to look to boost wages and housing, but international evidence shows that pre-distribution can never be the whole answer.

No one denies that Rachel Reeves, as Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, has one of the toughest gigs in town. Fiscally, it seems a Labour government would cap spending on social security. Politically, at a time when highly punitive policies such as the benefit cap attract broad public support, Labour is sensitive to proposing any reform that could be spun as "soft on scroungers". Getting the politics and the economics right will not be easy.

Reeves’s long-awaited speech on social security yesterday was clearly a product of this highly constrained context. Insisting claimants must improve their basic skills looks sensible if implemented fairly, while the focus on contribution is palatable from both the fiscal and political point of view. Given the boundaries within which she operates, Reeves’s decision not to hive off 18-to-24-year-olds from mainstream social security provision and subject them to especial opprobrium has to be commended.

But what did the speech have to offer those of us who see poverty reduction as one of the key functions of a social security system? It’s great to see the political establishment finally recognise that we expect social security to do too much of the heavy lifting in the UK. High housing costs, low levels of parental employment, low and often sporadic wages all require the state to step in and help more than it has to in other developed economies. Without a doubt, addressing these structural determinants would both decrease poverty and drive down the social security bill in one fell swoop.

But international evidence also shows us that pre-distribution can never be the whole answer. The countries we look to as beacons of success - the Nordics, the Netherlands, Germany – still run poverty rates of over 20 per cent before their governments weigh in with taxes and transfers. Unpalatable though it may be, the truth is you can’t reduce poverty without an adequate social security system. 

So where does this leave Reeves and team? In a difficult place for sure. But is it as simple a choice as talk tough or commit political suicide? A public call to remember why we have – and should prize – our social security system is essential and one politicians have long neglected.  It should also be possible to make a case for building a new consensus around the objective of fairness and, crucially, tell us what response Labour can offer to the poorest families, who have borne the brunt of austerity to date. Hard tasks perhaps, but not impossible and they carry the potential to transform the lives of millions. As the evidence shows, without a sustainable settlement on working-age – and especially family – benefits, child poverty looks set to remain an enduring and shameful feature of the British landscape. 

Children play a game of football in front of a residential development in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.