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.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

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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The constituencies where the Liberal Democrats can take on the Tories

There are nine seats where Liberal Democrats are within striking distance of victory in an election fought on Brexit issues.  

"Comeback is a good word, man," said actor Mickey Rourke when he was catapulted back into Hollywood stardom after a long stint in the wilderness. Tim Farron is no Rourke but at the rapidly approaching general election he too is betting on a comeback.

Liberal Democrats have a score to settle. Two years ago, the traditional third party in British politics were a mere 25,000 votes away from losing all of their seats in Westminster. But the vote for Brexit has given Farron and his party a lifeline. With Labour divided, the party has taken an opportunity to pitch to disillusioned Remainers. And they have made some inroads. Local by-election victories for Liberal Democrats are now commonplace, while the parliamentary by-election in Richmond Park provided further evidence of a comeback.

Now, Farron eyes a snap "Brexit election" as an opportunity for a full-scale comeback, claiming that Prime Minister May is "playing on the Liberal Democrats ground". But could his party really give the Conservatives a bloody nose by winning back some of the seats that were lost in 2015, and possibly more?

Let’s start with the current state of play. In 2015, the Liberal Democrats were reduced to a rump of only eight MPs, with the Richmond Park victory increasing this to nine. Today, Liberal Democrats are the main opposition in 62 seats, in third place in a further 36 seats, and fourth place in 338. The good news for Farron is that in 16 seats Liberal Democrats' vote is within 10 per cent of the incumbent. Ten of these seats are held by Conservatives, and all are in the south or south west England. A further three are held by Labour and three by the Scottish National Party. There is also an "outer ring", where Liberal Democrats are between 10 per cent and 20 per cent behind the incumbent. Of these more distant prospects, 15 are held by Conservatives, four by Labour and five by the SNP.

Then there's the Liberal Democrat MPs themselves. Of the nine MPs, five have a majority of less than five percentage points, with the incumbent in the most marginal seat (Southport) not seeking re-election.

What happens from here? One longstanding problem for Liberal Democrats has been to translate votes into seats. In the past, targeted campaigns helped but did not resolve the disparity between the party’s share of the vote and its number of MPs. One reason was the so-called "credibility gap" – where voters are reluctant to vote for a party they believe has little chance of winning. Historically, Liberal Democrats tried to offset this through strong, local campaigns. This campaigning, which two years ago saved Liberal Democrats from complete annihilation, could be more important in 2017 given the shorter election period. In 2015, the Conservatives' "decapitation strategy" across southern England relied on a ruthlessly efficient "joined-up" campaign, driven by Conservative headquarters in co-operation with local parties. Huge sums were thrown at key south and south-west battlegrounds for nine months or more. The thinly-resourced Liberals were out-gunned.

But this time, with less than 50 days until polling day, the Conservatives are unable to replicate this sustained ferocity. This may give Liberal Democrats more of a fighting chance.

The shorter campaign could help them in other ways. Since the vote for Brexit, the Lib Dems have prepared for a snap election and selected candidates in seats that were lost in 2015, as well as others on a long range target list. This could be a double-edged sword. Familiar faces like Vince Cable, Ed Davey, Simon Hughes and Jo Swinson will remove credibility problems, but such faces might also remind voters of the party’s role in the post-2010 coalition. Nonetheless, all remain within striking distance. Cable and Davey require a direct swing from the Conservatives to Liberal Democrat of less than 2.4 per cent while Jo Swinson requires a direct swing from the SNP of 2 per cent. If their local popularity remains, the changed climate since 2015 may mean that such seats are more attainable than they would be with new candidates.

But the bigger and more popular argument is that Liberal Democrats will be boosted by the "Brexit election" whereby Remainers will flock to the orange banner. But our evidence suggests that while there is potential, the party faces an uphill task.

Under most scenarios, Conservative losses will be minor. The figure below shows the Remain vote by the Liberal Democrat margin (the difference between the 2015 vote for the Liberal Democrats and the vote for the winning party). And we have focused on the 40 most marginal Liberal Democrat target seats in 2017.

This reveals a cluster of nine seats where Liberal Democrats are within striking distance of victory, within 10 percentage points of the winner, if indeed the Remain vote switches over en masse. Four of these seats are held by Conservatives (Bath, Twickenham, Kingston and Surbiton, Lewes) and two by Labour (Cambridge, and Bermondsey and Old Southwark). Worryingly for Farron, the remaining three are held by the similarly anti-Brexit SNP.

There is also second cluster of 11 seats where the Remain vote surpassed the 50 per cent mark and in some cases was much higher, but where Liberal Democrats are up to 20 points behind the winning party. Once again, the task facing Farron is hard – six are held by the SNP. Of the remaining five, three are Conservative (Cheadle, Cheltenham and Oxford West and Abingdon) and two Labour (Cardiff Central, and Hornsey and Wood Green).

% Constituency Remain Vote by 2015 Liberal Democrat Margin (%)

*Key: Blue = Conservative held; Red = Labour held; Yellow = SNP Held

A third cluster is more interesting. There is a distinct grouping of seats that were around or just below the average Remain vote and where Liberal Democrats are between 3-18 per cent behind the incumbent. In most cases the swing required for them to win is not excessive.

Worryingly for Prime Minister May, these are predominantly Conservative-held seats that turned blue in 2015 –seats like like Thornbury and Yate, Colchester, and Sutton and Cheam. Here, as elsewhere, turnout will be key. If –and it is a big if- the Liberals can sweep up Remainers and get them to turnout they could easily break the 20 seat mark and put a dent in May’s majority (see Table 1). Of course, it is not all one way. At the same time, of the nine Liberal Democrat MPs, Norman Lamb in Norfolk North (where 58 per cent voted for Brexit) looks vulnerable to a Conservative challenge if this post-Brexit realignment plays out.

A ‘Brexit Election’ Scenario: Liberal Democrat Possible Gains

Cluster 1 Cluster 2

Cluster 3: 45 per cent+ Remain

Low Leave Turnout

Conservative Held Conservative Held Conservative Held
Bath Cheadle** Thornbury & Yate
Twickenham** Cheltenham** Colchester
Kingston & Surbiton** Oxford West & Abingdon Sutton and Cheam
Lewes     Labour Held Portsmouth South
Labour Held Cardiff Central Brecon & Radnorshire**
Cambridge** Hornsey & Wood Green St Ives
Bermondsey & Old Southwark** SNP Held Hazel Grove
SNP Held Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross Wells**
East Dunbartonshire** Ross, Skye & Lochaber St Austell and Newquay
Edinburgh West     Gordon Eastleigh**
North East Fife Argyll and Bute Chippenham
  Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk  
  Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey      

*Note: other possibilities include Berwick upon Tweed, and Eastbourne. The latter is extremely marginal but the leave vote was substantial. Other marginal seats such as Torbay and Yeovil would be unlikely to go back to the Liberal Democrats under a Brexit election scenario (although they come in play if not). It should be noted there may be anomalies like St Albans, which voted Remain, where the party has and continues to poll well. But in previous elections the strong local platform has not translated into voting Liberal Democrat in the general election. Maidstone & the Weald is a long term target but a strong Brexit vote there rules it out under this scenario. **Previous Liberal Democrat incumbent confirmed as standing again.  

Turning to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat battlegrounds, Farron and his party will do better where they have past success and an activist base. The party is positioning itself against the Conservatives and will target seats that are marginal and have a healthy Remain vote. But, as we have seen, the gains are limited given the scale of the party’s collapse in 2015. So are there long term targets where we could see a swing to the Liberal Democrats?

If the Liberal Democrats get a poll bounce during the campaign and hit the heights of 16-17 per cent then there are seats that could come into play in the shadow of the election. The next figure shows the Remain vote by 2015 Liberal Democrat margin in seats currently held by the Conservatives but which used to be held by Liberal Democrats in the recent past.

Conservative Held Seats (Previously won by the Liberal Democrats only) - % Constituency Remain Vote by 2015 Liberal Democrat Margin (%)

There is a cluster of pro-Remain seats with a Liberal Democrat heritage where Farron will find a receptive audience – Winchester, Guildford, Harrogate and Knaresborough, and Romsey and Southampton North. But these would require goliath swings – Liberal Democrat candidates are 30-40 points behind. This also reveals how the Conservatives have a buffer, even in areas where historically the Liberal Democrats have been strong, as in Cornwall and Devon. There are 16 seats in the south-west that used to be held by the Liberal Democrats but which recorded below average Remain votes at the referendum. So if this does become a Brexit election then to win these seats back Farron will need to do a lot more than simply bang on about the perils of hard Brexit. In these seats Liberal Democrat gains in 2017 seem unlikely.

Another factor that could easily work against the Liberal Democrats is the Ukip vote. Ukip is already finding it difficult to retain its 2015 vote and how this vote splits could be crucial. Theresa May and her team are doing everything in their power to tempt back Ukip voters. If this happens on a broad basis it could have worrying implications for Liberal Democrats.

In 75 per cent of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat seats shown above Ukip polled more than 10 per cent of the vote in 2015. Crucially, Ukip obtained more than 10 per cent of the vote in all but one of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat battleground seats that polled a lower Remain vote than average. Ukip also achieved this feat in 15 of the 16 seats in the south west which had a higher than average Leave vote. What does this mean? The Brexit election could backfire on Farron. If Lynton Crosby, who knows these seats well, guns after Leave voters they may vote tactically to keep out the Liberal Democrats in order to get what they really want –Brexit.

Turning back to the most enticing prospects for Liberal Democrats in Cluster 1, only the Conservative-held Lewes had a Ukip vote of more than 10 per cent, reaffirming how these seats represent the best hope for Farron. In sharp contrast, all of the seats in Cluster 3 have substantial Ukip votes which the Conservatives will look to mobilize as a firewall against Liberal Democrat gains. In conclusion, therefore, May’s gamble of "playing on the Liberal Democrats ground" is not without risk but seems a safe bet. She has a good chance of holding onto many "traditional liberal" heartland seats that her party captured in 2015. The Liberal Democrats may stage a comeback of sorts, but this may be less impressive than many currently expect.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Political Science at the University of Kent and author of Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the EU. He tweets @GoodwinMJ. David Cutts is Professor of Political Science at the University of Birmingham.

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