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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.