I preferred his earlier work. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

David Cameron has delivered the obituary for compassionate Conservatism

David Cameron, once the poster boy for a cuddlier Conservatism, has reverted to type, says Stephen Timms.

Yesterday in the House of Commons, Iain Duncan Smith read out the obituary notice for compassionate conservatism. He announced the demise of the Child Poverty Act, which was agreed with all party support in 2009-10. He plans to replace the clear targets set out in the Act with a requirement to publish a jumble of loosely connected statistics – and apparently no targets at all.  

In their 2015 manifesto, the Conservatives said they would “work to eliminate child poverty”.  Yesterday’s announcement means they have no intention of doing any such thing.

The internationally accepted definition of a household in poverty, used across OECD countries, is a household whose income is less than 60 percent of the current median income for a household of its size.  It is sometimes referred to as relative poverty.  A household in absolute poverty is one whose income is less than 60 per cent of the median income at a fixed point in time – our current measures use the benchmark of  2010.

In government, Labour lifted more than a million children out of relative poverty, reducing the proportion from 26 per cent in 1998 to 18 per cent in 2010, and more than 2 million out of absolute poverty. The Child Poverty Act includes four measures of poverty: relative, absolute, persistent and material deprivation.  The Act set targets to be achieved by 2020, including that relative poverty should be below 10 per cent.  New data published last week shows that progress on reducing child poverty has stalled, and that absolute child poverty is going up under the Tories.

Duncan Smith told the Commons that he was arguing against the relative poverty measure over a decade ago.  At the same time, David Cameron in his 2006 Scarman was embracing it.  He said then: “We need to think of poverty in relative terms - the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted” and committed that “The Conservative Party will measure and act on relative poverty … Poverty is relative and those who pretend otherwise are wrong”.

In a speech last week, the Prime Minister had clearly changed his mind. “Take the historic approach to tackling child poverty”, he said. “Today, because of the way it is measured, we are in the absurd situation where if we increase the state pension, child poverty actually goes up.” That is correct. If you increase the income of better off people, you make others relatively poorer.  

The Prime Minister said with conviction last week that focusing on relative poverty is absurd.  But in 2006  he set out the diametrically opposite view, with apparently equal conviction, that “the Conservative Party will measure and act on relative poverty”.

In addition to setting clear targets, the Child Poverty Act set up the Child Poverty Commission, with a statutory duty to report annually on progress in reducing child poverty.  The Coalition Government changed it to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. And yesterday, Iain Duncan Smith said “we will reform the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission to become the Social Mobility Commission”.  The abandonment of effort on child poverty could not be clearer.

The Child Poverty Act requires the preparation and updating of a UK strategy for delivering the child poverty targets, an obligation to which the Coalition paid lip service It also requires local authorities to work with partners “with a view to reducing, and mitigating the effects of, child poverty in the responsible local authority’s area”.  Yesterday, Duncan Smith said he would remove all the “other duties and provisions” in the Act.

The announcement means that all the measures forcing governments to act on child poverty are being scrapped. It’s not surprising, ecause, next week, it is widely expected that George Osborne will use his emergency budget to announce drastic cuts in tax credits in order to deliver his £12 billion package of social security cuts, increasing child poverty.  

The announcement means that all the measures forcing governments to act on child poverty are being scrapped.  Its not surprising, because, next week, it is widely expected that George Osborne will use his emergency budget to announce drastic cuts in tax credits, in order to deliver his £12 billion package of social security cuts, increasing child poverty. One tax credit cut under consideration by Cameron and Osborne would save £5 billion per year, and increase child poverty by 300,000. 

Tax credits have been by far the most effective measure ever introduced in Britain to make work pay.  The lone parent employment rate has risen in Britain from less than 45 per cent in 1997 to over 60 per cent today –thanks in large part to tax credits.  
With only lip service now being paid by Ministers to fighting child poverty, the deck is clear for the next stage of the Tories’ attack on the low paid.  

Stephen Timms is Labour's acting shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
 

GARY WATERS
Show Hide image

In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt