No hope: youth unemployment is at crisis levels. Photo: Getty
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Owen Jones on The Condition of Britain: where is the left’s transformative programme?

The authors of IPPR’s The Condition of Britain offer a coherent plan and one that will be influential if the Labour Party triumphs in May.

The Condition of Britain: Strategies for Social Renewal
Kayte Lawton, Graeme Cooke, Nick Pearce
IPPR, 270pp, free download

What would Thatcherism have been without its think tanks and intellectual outriders? The policies and vision of the transformative Conservative governments of the 1980s did not come out of nowhere: they were decades in the making. After the founding fathers of neoliberalism met in the Swiss village of Mont Pèlerin in 1947 to have a grump about the collapse of laissez-faire economics, Tories spent decades plotting and formulating a fightback. In this country, the Institute of Economic Affairs was founded in 1955; the Centre for Policy Studies in 1974; the Adam Smith Institute in 1977. They not only laid the ideological foundations for privatisation, the stripping of trade union power and the slashing of taxes on the rich and corporate interests, but helped shift the terms of political debate. The left has been on the defensive and in intellectual retreat ever since.

It’s difficult not to look at the left’s grand new contributions to the debate through this prism. To be fair, The Condition of Britain, published by the centre-left think tank IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research), does not pretend to mirror the early neoliberals. It calls itself an “ambitious but pragmatic agenda for social renewal” and has two major inspirations: IPPR’s Commission on Social Justice, which laid the ground in 1994 for New Labour’s social policy, and the proposals of the Centre for Social Justice (no relation), which underpinned the Cameron-led Conservatives’ narrative on “broken Britain” and “the big society”. When elected Labour leader, Ed Miliband offered a blank sheet of paper. He has since doodled over much of it, but here is an attempt to paint a coherent picture. Has Milibandism finally been defined?

Sadly for the authors, their fully costed report has become best known for being tied to cutting benefits for young people. It’s not a fair description but the proposal that Miliband’s advisers seized on – and spun in a misplaced attempt to outflank the Tories on social security – was to replace Jobseeker’s Allowance with a means-tested youth allowance dependent on looking for work or training.

The authors are right that youth unemployment is a scourge. Being unemployed at a young age makes people more likely to stay unemployed or on lower wages for the rest of their lives. It fuels anxiety and depression and is a waste of talent and life. However, although The Condition of Britain is a document dealing with social rather than economic policy, this proposal strikes me as missing the point. Youth unemployment has doubled since I finished my A-levels in 2002. Nearly half of new university graduates now do non-graduate jobs, and the proportion of new engineering graduates taking unskilled work is roughly a quarter. 

The national crises of unemployment and underemployment – for young, older and disabled people alike – have everything to do with the stripping away of secure, middle-income jobs under both the Conservatives and New Labour, which has left us with an hourglass economy of middle-class professional jobs at the top and low-pay, low-skill jobs at the bottom. The authors know this but will point out that it lies outside the purview of a report on “social renewal”. Such a goal, though, is possible only if we deal with the economics. Separating the two is implausible and focusing on, say, having to train or lose benefits risks fuelling the narrative that individual behaviour – rather than a lack of secure jobs – is the problem.

Much of The Condition of Britain is a critique of Brownism, with its top-down approach, targets, redistribution through cash benefits, pulling levers, and so on. It is correct to argue that, despite the promise of rolling back the state, neoliberalism has gone hand in hand with a new form of statism. The failure to build homes has resulted in 95 per cent of the government’s housing budget being spent on rent subsidies, rather than construction. The proposal to lift the borrowing cap on local councils so that they can build – bringing down the social housing waiting list of five million, creating jobs, reducing housing benefit in the long term – is particularly welcome.

A shift in power to local authorities is also a positive approach. The report points out that Labour has little faith in councils – Hazel Blears once told me the party didn’t trust them to “wash the pots”. The proliferation of low wages has left workers dependent on the state through in-work benefits and not only has the government’s use of benefit sanctions driven the rise of food banks, but it is counterproductive if the aim is finding people lasting employment.

The report wants to expand free childcare – a crucial goal, given that, on average, roughly a quarter of British parents’ salary goes on childcare, unlike in Sweden, where it is capped at 3 per cent. But it suggests paying for this partly by making real-terms cuts (or a “cash freeze”) to child benefit: this is a key part of a proposed shift from cash benefits to services. Surely it would drive families into hardship, which is why Labour is rightly resisting it.

Many of the recommendations are welcome but – because The Condition of Britain is based on a premise of accepting austerity which some, like myself, reject – they are often funded by cuts elsewhere. The authors offer a coherent plan and one that will be influential if Miliband’s Labour Party triumphs in May. Yet I can’t help but look back with envy to the disciples of Mont Pèlerin: none of us on the left has yet offered the intellectual foundations for a transformative programme on the same scale. It is, I believe, sorely needed.

Owen Jones’s “The Establishment: and How They Get Away With It” will be published by Allen Lane in September (£16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage