Ed Miliband speaks to supporters at Redbridge on May 1, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband reimagines welfare for an era of austerity

With the old tax and spend model broken, Labour has been forced to be radical.

What's the point of Labour when there's less money around? It is the question that has stalked the party throughout this parliament. In his speech tomorrow to mark the publication of IPPR's Condition of Britain report, Ed Miliband will attempt to provide the answer. The 280-page report, which features 30 policy recommendations, covers ever aspect of social policy from the cradle to the grave, but Miliband's address will focus on the implications for the benefits system.

In an age of fiscal famine, the tax and spend policies of the New Labour era are no longer an option. To achieve progressive outcomes, the party will need to rewire the state without spending more money. In framing this choice, Labour's policy review head Jon Cruddas cites the “Burning Platform” email sent to Nokia staff by the company’s then chief executive Stephen Elop in 2011. Elop wrote of a man who woke to find the oil platform he was sleeping on engulfed in flames. In desperation, he jumped 30 metres into the freezing waters below. After his rescue, he reflected how the fire caused him to act in a radically different way. Faced with the “burning platform” of a £107bn budget deficit, Labour, too, is changing how it behaves.

Even were this a time of plenty, a trajectory of ever-higher welfare expenditure would not be possible. Public hostility to the social security system has risen inexorably in recent decades and shows little sign of receding. No party in the business of politics can afford to deny this reality.

The three principles around which Miliband will seek to remodel the welfare state are supporting work, not worklessness; rewarding contribution; and shifting spending from benefits to services. A series of emblematic policies will be announced tomorrow to flesh out this vision.

The first is the abolition of out-of-work benefits, most notably Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA), for 18-21-year-olds without Level 3 qualifications (such as A-levels) and its replacement by a new means-tested youth allowance (based on parental income) conditional on them being in training. For too long, as Labour has recognised, the system has created perverse incentives for the young to subsist on welfare, rather than seek to better themselves. Those who shun work automatically receive benefits but those who spend more than 16 hours a week in training or further education are denied any support. Along the way, tens of thousands cycle between poor work or no work without ever acquiring the skills they need for a fulfilling career. In an age of constraint, it is no longer acceptable for the taxpayer to pick up the tab.

As one Labour strategist told me: "The 1945 welfare state was built around certain features of Britain, which are no longer there ... The problem of the quality of jobs wasn’t there in the same way, the premium on skills wasn’t there in the same way and public attitudes towards welfare were totally different. We’ve got to adjust to all of those things, it’s not moving to the right, or the left, or any of those things. It's making the welfare state legitimate again."

The new youth allowance would end the injustice of the "16 hour rule" and offer those in further education (part of what Miliband calls the "forgotten 50 per cent") the same support provided to those in higher education. Those who refuse to take up the offer of training would lose their benefits; IPPR estimates that the policy would result in a net saving of £65m.

Some on the left will bridle at the conditionality, but Labour sources emphasise that exemptions would be made. Those who already have the qualifications needed to secure adequate work, those with children under one, those from troubled family backgrounds and those with severe disabilities would all be protected.

The second signature policy is to reward contribution by introducing a higher rate of JSA for those who have paid in the most. Policymakers have devoted much attention to ending the "something-for-nothing" problem - that too many who get out don't pay in - but they have had less to say about the "nothing-for-something" problem: that too many who pay in don't get out. Those who have contributed taxes for decades find that they are left with the paltry sum of £72.40 a week to soften the hammer blow of unemployment. That they are offered no more than someone who has worked for just two years is one of the causes of the profound public disillusionment with the system.

In recognition of this unfairness, Miliband will pledge to reaffirm the original Beveridgean contributory principle by introducing a higher JSA rate of up to £100. Again, this would not involve spending more money. The policy would be funded by extending the qualifying period for contributory JSA from two years to five. Aside from the moral justification for the policy, Labour strategists view a strengthened contributory principle as a powerful shield against those who want to take a scythe to the welfare state.

The third and final policy change concerns housing benefit. Since the 1980s, the payment has grown to become one of the biggest components of the welfare budget as extortionate rents and inadequate wages have forced ever more to rely on state support to remain in their homes. Labour would seek to reverse this trend by expanding housing supply (to at least 200,000 new homes a year by 2020) and would empower local councils to shift funding from benefits to bricks and mortar. Local authorities including Lewisham, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham have told the party that they could negotiate lower rents with landlords through measures such as bulk purchasing. At present, any savings would go straight to Whitehall, but Labour would allow local authorities to keep the proceeds and invest them in affordable homes - the only long-term solution to the bloated housing benefit bill.

In recent months, many have written of the divide betwen those in Labour who want a "radical" offer, and those more concerned with a "credible" one. But the fiscal crisis means that the most credible policies are also the most radical ones. The route to social democracy now lies through big reforms, not big spending. There is much further for Labour to go, but Miliband's speech is an important nudge in this direction.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In praise of the late developer

The success of late developers proves that our obsession with early achievement is wrong.

A fortnight ago, I fell into conversation with the head teacher of a local school. “You’ve got to create room for late developers,” he said. “The obsession with early attainment doesn’t suit most children.”

We were soon finishing each other’s sentences – talking about long-term confidence rather than short-term hothousing, how children don’t develop in a linear way, and the value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age.

What a shame, I reflected, that his message doesn’t reach a wider audience. We hear so much about prodigies and precociousness – Serena Williams and her pushy father, Tiger Woods and “tiger mothers” – and so little of the counter-argument: the high achievers who emerge at a slower pace in more balanced circumstances.

Our conversation ended when we both departed to watch England play Scotland in the Six Nations tournament. Only then did I learn that the head teacher’s son Huw Jones was playing in the centre for Scotland. He scored two tries, just as he did last autumn in his home debut against Australia.

Jones’s career is a tacit endorsement of his father’s philosophy. In his penultimate year at school, Huw was still playing mostly in the second XV. Five years on, he is a burgeoning talent on the world stage. The two facts are connected. Jones didn’t just overtake others; he also retained the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.

As boys, he and his brother made up their own version of rugby practice: could the ­attacker sidestep and run past the defender without setting foot outside the five-metre line? They were just having fun, uncoached and unsupervised. But their one-on-one game was teaching the most valuable skill in rugby: the ability to beat defenders in confined spaces.

Jones had access to superb opportunities throughout – at home, at Canterbury rugby club and then at Millfield, the independent school in Somerset well known for producing sportsmen. But at Millfield, he was far from being a superstar. He seldom played “A-team” rugby. The message from home: just keep enjoying it and getting better and eventually your time will come.

There was a useful precedent. Matt Perry, who won 36 caps for England between 1997 and 2001, had been a “B-team” player at school. What matters is where you end up, not who leads the race at the age of 16. Jones also developed transferable skills by continuing to play other sports. “Don’t specialise too early,” was the mantra of Richard Ellison, the former England cricketer who taught at Millfield for many years.

When Jones was 18 and finally blossoming in the school’s first XV, rugby agents started to take an interest, promising to place him in the “academy” of a professional team. “But I’d seen so many kids take that route and seen how bored they got,” his father, Bill, reflects. So Bill advised his son to go abroad, to gain experience of new cultures and to keep playing rugby for fun instead of getting on the tracksuited professional treadmill.

So Jones took a teaching job in Cape Town, where he played men’s club rugby. Instead of entering the professional system, as one of a bland cohort of similar-aged “prospects”, he served his apprenticeship among players drawn from different backgrounds and ages. Sport was shown to be a matter of friendship and community, not just a career path.

The University of Cape Town spotted and recruited Jones, who helped it win the South African university competition. Only then, in 2014, did British professional rugby teams start to take a serious interest. Jones, however, was enjoying South Africa and stayed put, signing a contract with the Stormers in the Super Rugby tournament – the world’s leading club competition.

So, in the space of 18 months, Jones had gone from being a gap-year Brit with no formal ties to professional rugby to playing against the world’s best players each week. He had arrived on the big stage, following a trajectory that suited him.

The level of competition had escalated rapidly but the tries kept coming. Scotland, by now closely monitoring a player qualified by birth, gave him his spectacular home debut against Australia last autumn – remarkable but not surprising. Finding his feet ­instantly on each new stage is the pattern of his career.

Those two qualities – first, instinctive ­try-scoring; second, a lack of vertigo – are connected. Amid all the jargon of professional sport, perhaps the most important qualities – freshness, ingenuity and the gift of surprise – are undervalued. Yet all of these rely on skills honed over many years – honed, but not dulled.

Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.

In a quiet way, Jones is a case study in evolved education and not just sport: a talented performer who was given time and space to find his voice. The more we learn about talent, as David Epstein demonstrated in The Sports Gene, the clearer it becomes that focusing on champion 11-year-olds decreases the odds of producing champion adults. Modern science has reinforced less frantic and neurotic educational values; variety and fun have their virtues.

Over the long term, put your faith not in battery farming but instead, in Bill Jones’s phrase, in “free-range children”.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution