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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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.