Two Britains: a gulf separates the poor from the "squeezed but safe". Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
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Life after crash: why have hard times made us harsher?

In contrast to previous recessions, after Lehman Brothers crashed the belief that excessive benefits bred indolence spread. This view was endorsed by 61 per cent by 2009. 

George Osborne caps some benefits, time-limits others and invites inflation to eat into them all for years ahead. It amounts to an assault on the welfare state defying all precedent. Despite the recovery, the effect is evident in London’s resurgent rough sleeping and the preponderance of food banks in market towns.

Where Margaret Thatcher hesitated to tread in the 1980s, the polls today suggest that the right is carrying all before it. Why? Because, as I argue in my book Hard Times, the Great Recession has shifted most voters’ calculation about where self-interest lies.

This may seem like a paradox. The collectivist postwar institutions now under attack were put in place in response to the Depression. Back then, fear of a storm that could lash anybody ensured that solidarity rose as the economy sank.

The pattern held into the late 20th century. As unemployment soared by a million between 1990 and 1993, working voters reasoned that “there but for the grace of God go we”. The British Social Attitudes survey found that the proportion suspecting that benefits were “too high and discouraged work” fell to less than a quarter. After Lehman Brothers imploded, in contrast, the belief that excessive benefits bred indolence spread; the view was endorsed by 61 per cent by 2009. Why have hard times got harsher? In essence because, after 35 years of rising inequality, the old understandings about shared risk have ceased to apply.

First, there is the spectacularly unequal incidence of redundancy. After 2008, already inflated unemployment rates for the unschooled, for ethnic minorities and dead-end towns increased more rapidly, often rising twice as fast.

In some disadvantaged subgroups, such as young black men, joblessness exceeded 50 per cent. Meanwhile, the luckier segments of society – white, middle-aged graduates, for instance – were almost immune.

Redundancies occur in every recession; the more distinctive hallmark of the recent downturn – and the current recovery – is unreliable and insecure jobs. These, too, are concentrated among the already disadvantaged and barely affect the middling majority.

The people of Middle England are further protected by property. It provides a substantial cushion against adversity for ordinary homeowners, whose path through the slump was eased by super-low interest rates that did little for renters.

Put it all together, and the chief victims of the recession emerge as almost preordained. The rest can be forgiven if they conclude that hard times hold few terrors. To be sure, most people’s pay packets have been squeezed, but a few years of getting by without a rise is no disaster if you were comfortable before. It does not trigger recourse to the safety net; indeed, the most reliable way to ease the pinch might be to vote for lower taxes even if that leads to lower benefits. Self-interest has a way of warping perceptions, and so this line of thinking slides into suspicions about those who do rely on the state.

The Great Recession has bequeathed Britain two political nations. Among those substantially hit by austerity, 62 per cent told YouGov last year that they rejected the coalition’s cuts as too hasty; among those not much affected, a similar majority of 65 per cent felt that the cutting should be maintained or stepped up. Britons directly affected by the downturn said the government was “too harsh towards people on benefits”; those unaffected said it was “too soft”.

The most vulnerable minority has grown more supportive of state assistance, while the rest have become more inclined to leave victims on their own. Given that the latter are in the majority, the overall drift is rightward.

Saving social security depends on appealing across the economic gulf that separates victims of the recession from the “squeezed but basically safe”, few of whom expect to need the safety net any time soon. A pitch rooted in naked self-interest is not going to work as it might have done in more equal times, but it does not follow that social security cannot be made legitimate to the majority.

New Labour’s tax credits channelled money towards cash-strapped families simply because they were poor, and thereby failed this test. Instead, we must shore up the foundations of economic shelters in working life. This entails, first, looking beyond state benefits, and regulating or nudging employers to do more for their vulnerable staff on security and pay. Second, it entails reinventing social insurance. It would be costly to find funds for, say, a higher rate of Jobseeker’s Allowance for those who have “paid a stamp” or contributed to the community in some other demonstrable way. But doing something explicitly extra for unarguably deserving victims could break us out of the Benefits Street discourse.

The squeezed but safe could coldly conclude that it would be better to go uninsured than pay premiums to cover others. But if they are assured that those being bailed out deserve it, opinion would surely shift. Faced with a welfare system that nobody bothers to explain or defend, those who don’t need help are bound to do the selfish calculation and vote for cuts. The left should take its cue from Franklin Roosevelt’s defence of a “legal, moral and political” right to contribution-based benefits. It might just find that most of us still understand that bad things can happen to good people.

Tom Clark is the author of “Hard Times: the Divisive Toll of the Economic Slump” (Yale University Press, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

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