In this week's New Statesman: The family in peril

The new welfare: why more and more of us are headed for a fall. WITH: Frank Field, Jonathan Derbyshire, Laurie Penny and Rafael Behr.

Frank Field: From cradle to grave

On the 70th anniversary of the landmark Beveridge report Social Insurance and Allied Services, the blueprint for the postwar welfare state, the Labour MP Frank Field asks why the vision set out by Sir William Beveridge and Clement Attlee failed and how its fundamental principles might be revived.

“The challenge for the Labour Party today,” Field writes, “is to use the 70th anniversary of the Beveridge report to rethink the means-tested social security strategy that dominated the last Labour government. That strategy has imprisoned the party in an approach which threatens to destroy the Attlee vision of the welfare state.”

Labour, he argues, ought to reassert the principle of insurance-based welfare that was at the heart of Beveridge’s plan. “There is much in our political culture that supports such a change. There has always been a deep longing on the centre left for a virtuous polity, and support for the view that citizenship is more substantial if it is tied to certain public functions . . .”

Field proposes, as part of a Labour welfare reform package, “national schemes to ensure that, whatever the level of benefit they may be receiving, claimants can again begin to build on their provision without being penalised for doing so”.

On the coalition government’s Welfare Reform Act:

[The new] system of universal credit . . . will replace the existing system of working-age benefits and tax credits with a single payment . . . It entrenches means testing more firmly in our welfare system. Yet Labour’s line is to support this reform. It does so without any clear thought as to where the strategy will lead us or what our goals should be.

PLUS: In a short profile accompanying Field’s essay, Jonathan Derbyshire looks back at the New Statesman’s reaction to the publication of the Beveridge report in 1942:

The New Statesman offered a robust welcome to [the report. The magazine] looked “highly favourably” on Beveridge’s proposals. If Sir William were to get his way . . . we would see an end to the “long-tolerated scandal of the exploitation of the poor by insurance companies” and the introduction of a “guaranteed income” for every working person when he or she fell sick, was injured at work or became unemployed.

 

Liam Byrne: "Labour can win on social security"

In an exclusive interview, Liam Byrne sets out Labour’s strategy to take the fight back to the Tories on welfare, telling Rafael Behr: “Labour can win on social security.” The shadow work and pensions secretary predicts that the public mood around benefit cuts is about to change.

“The Tories have crossed the threshold of decency,” he says. “They’re very good at conjuring up another vulnerable group to kick the crap out of.”

Labour, Byrne says, will expose how the real price of deficit reduction and recession is being paid by working families. Stealing one of David Cameron’s favourite terms, he claims Labour can win the welfare debate by siding with the “strivers”:

“It’s not Britain’s shirkers who are having to pay the cost of failure, it’s Britain’s strivers,” he says. “The Tories are screwing Britain’s strivers . . . As working people feel the kicking they’re going to get next year and as they see the way our country becomes divided, they’re going to recoil. It will remind them of the things they rejected about the Tories in 1997.”

Byrne draws the outline of Labour’s own reform plans, with “switch spends” aimed at supporting families “who feel short-changed” by the existing welfare system. That means diverting resources from housing benefit to investment in social housing and away from unemployment benefit to help with child care and social care.

To win public trust, says Byrne, Labour will still need to put out “hard-edged” messages on the responsibility to work. “You’ve got a responsibility to work if you can and if you don’t work, we’ll stop your benefits – it’s as simple as that,” he says.

 

Laurie Penny: The Coalition's war on the disabled and the desititue

In an impassioned column, Laurie Penny rails against the government-endorsed vilification of those on disability benefits. “Those who’ve been fighting this cause for years are sick and tired of repeating the arguments and watching the public conversation about disability slide backwards into hate and suspicion.”

Laurie talks to a group of hunger strikers – disabled benefit recipients fighting to regain their dignity following unjust cuts to their much-needed state support:

A hunger strike is a supreme act of willpower. It’s a desperate attempt to wrest back dignified control of your own body when your dignity and control have been confiscated . . .

The hunger strikers have assumed – as most of us did, until very recently – that the government gives a damn about whether or not very poor, sick people die early and in pain. Given recent pronouncements by the Department for Work and Pensions, this may be a dangerous assumption. An all-out assault has been under way against the disabled and the unemployed, rewriting the social script in this country so that the needy are no longer full human beings but scroungers, burdens on the state.

 

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Julie Bindel: In love with a death row dandy

What would prompt a woman to marry a convicted killer and rapist? Our reporter at large Julie Bindel travels to Florida to find out. For her provocative piece, she meets the spouses of death row inmates, speaks with psychologists, and draws on her own reportage of sex tourism and the “eroticisation of otherness” to get to the bottom of these surprisingly common couplings. She begins:

Rosalie Bolin, a legal advocate on behalf of death row inmates, is here to visit a rapist and serial killer of women. But this man is not her client. Oscar Bolin is her husband. They married in 1996 and said their vows over the phone. She wore a wedding dress and sat in her apartment and he wore his prison-issue orange boiler suit in his death row cell.

Bright, articulate and immediately likeable, Rosalie is a passionate campaigner against state execution. It was in this role that she first met Bolin. He had been a drifter, a carnival worker and a long-distance trucker, had dealt in drugs and had pleaded guilty to a vicious gunpoint rape in 1988 . . .

Women involved with men on death row trot out explanations for why their marriages are not so different from the rest – that most marriages are loveless and sexless, anyway; that many couples do not spend much quality time together. They often tell you, as a “joke”, that at least men on death row do not cheat on their wives.

She [Rosalie] says that she identifies with Bolin, comparing her life as an unhappy socialite with his own as a neglected and abused child, violent criminal and now death row inmate.

“I felt his isolation, his confinement, his loneliness. It affected me because I felt the same way,” she says.

. . . During my time in Starke, I began to see these women similarly to the white female sex tourists in Jamaica on whom I once did some research. The class privilege is all too apparent, as is the eroticisation of “otherness” and the image of the caged beast looking for its saviour. It is easy to tell the “death row divas” from the veterans. The women who have been with the men from before their convictions often appear to be poor and suffering from mental and physical ill-health. The tourists are sweet-smelling, well dressed and, invariably, white. They talk of having “rescued” men whom no one else wants.

 

Mehdi Hasan: Ignore the neocons - I refuse to give up on Egypt, or the Arab Spring

“Over the past year or so, the doom-mongers and naysayers of the western commentariat have fallen over one another to try to write the definitive obituary of the Arab revolts,” writes Mehdi Hasan in Lines of Dissent.

He considers the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, who on 22 November issued a decree granting himself sweeping powers, resulting in mass protests across the country:

I concede that recent events in Egypt don’t help those of us who desperately want to be optimistic about the future of the region,” Hasan writes. “But I refuse to give up on Egypt – or, for that matter, the Arab spring. Not yet, at least.

For a start, shouldn’t we be celebrating the backlash against Morsi’s decree and how instant it was? The president’s power grab was not just illegitimate, but ill-judged. His justice minister, Ahmed Mekky, went on television to object to the scope of the decree. The one-time presidential candidate and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a hero of Egypt’s liberal minority, took to Twitter to accuse Morsi of usurping “all state powers” and appointing himself “Egypt’s new pharaoh”.

As Egypt’s top judges threatened to go on strike, thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square on 27 November, repeating the chant that became the defining slogan of the demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak: “The people want the downfall of the regime.”

Second, at the time of writing, the backlash looks like it might be working. Morsi has begun to perform a David-Cameron-type U-turn, claiming his new powers are much narrower and more temporary than the announcement originally indicated.

This pharaoh, it seems, isn’t immune to political or popular pressure. Remember: just 21 months have elapsed since the fall of Mubarak, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 30 years, and just five months since the election of Morsi. “It’s going to take some time” for Egypt to adapt to democracy, says [H A] Hellyer [a research fellow at the Brookings Institution], who lives in Cairo. “There was always going to be a lot of trauma."

 

Rafael Behr: The Tories flirting with Ukip are listening to the siren lure of unelectable purity

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr turns his attention towards the political organisation du jour – the UK Independence Party (Ukip). What appeal do they hold for Conservatives dissatisfied with the Prime Minister, and what would be the dangers of joining forces with Nigel Farage?

 

Some ideas in politics are so bad that even disavowing them is getting too close. The notion of the Tories forming an electoral pact with the UK Independence Party is one . . .

This fringe flirtation springs from ideological affinity. Farage says aloud things about Europe and immigration that many Tories think but feel are taboo in Cameron’s party. When the Tory leader described Ukip as a haven for “loonies, fruitcakes and closet racists” in 2006, he told a number of his MPs, in effect, that their career prospects were over on his watch.

The problem, as Cameron knows, is that the Tories failed to win a majority in 2010 because too many voters imagined them a bit too Faragey already – all claret-faced in disgust at modern Britain. It is hard to see how inserting the real Farage into their 2015 manifesto will change those sceptical minds.

Dissident Conservatives argue that the economic crisis has changed the political landscape. There is, they say, a new appetite for right-wing populism and departure from the EU, as shown by opinion polls and Ukip’s harrying of mainstream parties in by-elections. The flaw in that argument is that it doesn’t distinguish between what voters feel on single issues and how ardently they feel it. Europhobia doesn’t damage the Tories because voters love the EU. They don’t. It hurts them by signalling a relapse into manias from the party’s most unattractive years.

 

And what of the Liberal Democrats? The Conservative flirtation with Ukip could work in their favour, Behr argues:

Every tender glance that Cameron’s MPs throw at Ukip is a tactical boost for the Lib Dems.

“They really are the British Tea Party,” says one Clegg ally. “They’ve been allowed to grow because they once served a useful purpose but now it’s out of control."

 

David Blanchflower: Why Osborne has got it right... for once

On George Osborne’s appointment of Mark Carney – governor of the Bank of Canadaand chairman of the G20’s financial stability board – to the chief role at the Bank of England, David Blanchflower writes:

 I don’t agree with much of anything the Chancellor does but this time is different. I congratulate George Osborne for getting his man. The appointment is a triumph for him . . .

Bringing in an outsider was always the right thing to do, as Alistair Darling recommended months ago, given the failings at both the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority. The failure of Northern Rock and the Royal Bank of Scotland appears to have been a complete surprise, and the Bank failed to spot a huge asset bubble and acted too late to prevent disaster . . .

The last thing we needed was for the bookies’ favourite, Paul Tucker, deputy governor of the Bank, to get the top job. He had failed to spot the recession or the double dip and was finally done in by his problems over the fixing of the LIBOR rate. Other contenders did not have Carney’s credentials; none would have received the universal acclaim that greeted his appointment.

 

In The Critics

In The Critics this week, John Gray reviews Why Tolerate Religion? by the American political philosopher Brian Leiter, Leo Robson reviews Julian Barnes’s essay collection Through the Window , Kate Mossman reviews Kylie Minogue’s Abbey Road Sessions, and our Critic at Large Talitha Stevenson writes on why the pathologies of modern life now take forms that we used to associate with creative writers (i.e. writers block).

Read more about it our "In The Critics this week" feature here.

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: www.newstatesman.com/subscribe

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.