Full employment and rising wages are the key to welfare reform

Iain Duncan Smith was once right about the need for drastic change - then he got everything else wrong.

When Iain Duncan Smith starting visiting to Easterhouse and steered the new Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) towards a Tory-analysis of poverty, he was hailed by many as a prophet. Finally, wrote breathless commentators, the ‘nasty party’ had found a route-map to Compassionate Converatism. Five years later, IDS is part of a government that is plunging one million children into poverty and is ramming through the House of Lords new laws that will cut help for 3.5 million disabled people. The Saint of Easterhouse has become the punch-bag of the Treasury. The route-map, is turns out, was a chimera.

But IDS is still standing in part because he stands on the foundations of the CSJ’s study. I might disagree about lots of their conclusions but I can respect the fact that they actually bothered to look at the problem. Reform of social security – currently one-third of public spending – is a big question. It demands and deserves deep thinking not a casual look. And that’s why the launch on 14 February of the Commission on the Condition of Britain is so welcome, and why I’ll be following its work so closely. Back in the 1990s, the Commission on Social Justice at the IPPR was critical to Labour’s social security reforms in office. I hope we’ll learn just as much from the IPPR’s second big look two decades later.

The truth is major reform of the welfare state is mission critical to rebuilding Britain after the global financial crash; it’s crucial to creating a country where we end the trauma of the living standards crisis, and it’s crucial to renewing a shared sense that we really are all in this together. This is the frame that Jon Cruddas set out for One Nation Labour in an important speech at the Resolution Foundation this week; ‘earning and belonging’.

When the Beveridge Report was published seventy years ago in the middle of World War Two, it was swept off the shelves by a British public thirsty for a vision of what would come when peace was won. At the heart of Beveridge’s argument was the idea we needed social insurance to help working families deal with the exigencies of life that caused new pressures (like the costs of children) or caused a loss of earnings , like the mass unemployment of the 1930s.

Today, the challenge for social security is not simply to minimise disruption to earnings, it is to help families maximise the potential of earnings. Beveridge’s world-view was set during the Devil’s Decade of the 1930s. Our world-view must be shaped by the gigantic squeeze on earnings that means living standards for ordinary working families might not recover, according to the Resolution Foundation, until the 2020s.

The reality for Britain today is that right now, productivity is going up; corporate profits are going up; companies are piling up cash in their bank accounts at a rapid rate of knots. Yet real wages are falling. In other words, workers are producing more and earning less. If we’re to reverse this giant trend, we are going to need new strategies for full employment – because full employment is the best guarantee of rising wages. We’re going to need new strategies to help working parents – especially mums – juggle childcare and sustain their careers. We need new ways to help the over 50s stay in work. And we need a radically new approach to disability policy so that government actually puts a team behind disabled people helping them get on in life, not a bureaucracy against them locking away help.

The IPPR’s work couldn’t come at a better time. Half way through the Parliament it’s now clear, the Conservatives so-called welfare revolution is collapsing in chaos. It doesn’t help working families get on. Its making poverty worse. The DWP is no longer even able to organise work experience in Poundland, never mind complex change like Universal Credit. We’re determined to offer a bold alternative, that staunches the cost of failures and puts social security once more, back on the side of working people.

The Easterhouse estate, Glasgow. Source: Getty

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, and sits on the International Trade select committee. He is the cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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