Iain Duncan Smith. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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Welfare reform: proof that you can get away with failure if it's boring and it doesn't affect People Like Us

Don't believe the hype about the rollout of universal credit and how the Tories are finally "making work pay" - Iain Duncan Smith has presided over perhaps the failure of this parliament.

Whenever I talk about the need for better representation of women and minorities in politics, there is a stock response. “Surely we want ministers appointed on merit?” people ask, making a serious face. And I always think, “So how do you explain Iain Duncan Smith, then?”

IDS is one of the great enigmas of modern politics. In person, he appears quiet, self-contained, borderline pious: stick him in a robe and sandals and he’d make a very good abbot. He has devoted allies who believe in him with quasi-religious zeal.

Yet welfare reform is perhaps the failure of this parliament, which has been allowed to go unnoticed because: a) it doesn’t really affect People Like Us and b) it is protected by a tedium shield three miles thick.

These past weeks, the spin doctors tell us, were devoted to trumpeting the Conservatives’ alleged success in saving the taxpayer sackloads of cash by chastising scroungers and layabouts into honest employment. Tory commentators are in ecstasies. “Like an unstoppable cyborg programmed with bourgeois decency – the Suburbinator – IDS has simply refused to give in,” swooned Matthew d’Ancona in the Guardian on 15 February. “His welfare revolution is potentially the most important achievement of the government,” wrote Peter Oborne in the same day’s Telegraph. (If only we could get all jobseekers to work as hard as the word “potentially” does in that sentence. I am potentially the most acclaimed supermodel of the 21st century. Tony Blair is potentially the man who will bring peace to the Middle East. Don’t all rush to Ladbrokes at once.)

Let’s start with Universal Credit, since that has apparently now been recast as a success. It is actually a failure: a good idea in theory that was horrifically bungled in practice. In 2010 the government quite reasonably acknowledged that navigating a maze of more than 30 benefits was causing huge problems for claimants. But ministers seemed less aware that the complexity would not go away under Universal Credit; it would merely be dealt with by a computer system instead.

There is a reason why “government IT project” rivals “rail replacement bus” as the most chilling three-word phrase in our language. This didn’t bother Duncan Smith and his circle at the Department for Work and Pensions, who were infused with a sense of divine purpose. Throughout the process, the department has made avoidable errors by insisting that all naysayers must be enemies rather than critical friends. In September 2013, a National Audit Office report raised alarms about “a ‘fortress’ mentality within the programme team and a ‘good news’ reporting culture”. The public accounts committee, led by the indomitable Margaret Hodge, reported in November that year that the team was “isolated and defensive” and “gave misleading interviews to the press” indicating that all was well. There were also some sharp questions about how well the £425m invested up to that point had been spent.

The problems are not confined to the distant past. In December, the Office for Budget Responsibility delivered an exquisitely crafted blow, saying, in effect, that it didn’t believe the department’s figures any longer. It cited “the recent history of optimism bias in Universal Credit plans and other projects of this sort”.

That optimism bias was still on show on 15 February as IDS announced the roll-out of Universal Credit. It might happen, although Labour says it will “pause” the programme if elected and George Osborne (who seems never to have rated his colleague’s intelligence or ability) may well find a way to kibosh it out of the spotlight of an election campaign. The Treasury has still not approved the business case for Universal Credit and the rollout has a host of exemptions. You cannot claim it if you own your home or are homeless, for example.

Even if it does finally emerge, Universal Credit seems unlikely to deliver the huge savings needed to slash the welfare bill to the levels demanded by Osborne. It might also have unintended consequences that haven’t been sufficiently offset. For instance, the vaunted ambition of “making work pay” – by stopping the steep reduction in benefits for those working just over 16 hours a week – might encourage claimants to take insecure, irregular part-time work and allow employers to get away with offering it.

Universal Credit is not the government’s only troubled welfare reform. The expanded work capability assessment backfired so badly that the outsourced provider ditched the contract. The Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) system has become incredibly punitive. Declan Gaffney in the National Insti­tute Economic Review records that JSA sanctions are running at 6 per cent, the highest on record; among Employment and Support Allowance claimants (who are currently not fit for work), sanctions rose from 2,200 in the first quarter of 2012 to 15,900 in the first quarter of 2014. To gain public support for these measures, the government has relied on myths such as “families where no one has worked for three generations” (of which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation failed to find a single example).

The unpalatable truth is that a high benefits bill stems not from a badly structured welfare system but from a badly structured society. Take housing benefit: accounting for inflation, it has risen 150 per cent in the past 21 years. The answer is not to cut housing benefit but to build more homes.

Welfare reform in this parliament has been about running to stand still, huffing and puffing and achieving very little. As Gaffney notes, “Labour’s spending plans for 2014/15 were for £216.8bn, compared with the current forecast of £215bn.” I bet the Quiet Man won't have much to say about that. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.