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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.

No hope: youth unemployment is at crisis levels. Photo: Getty
No hope: youth unemployment is at crisis levels. Photo: Getty

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)