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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Peter Hitchens on Twitter seemed barely human – then he came round for tea

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me.

But what about Peter Hitchens?” everyone is asking after my last encounter with him. He came round to the Hovel, you see, the day before the column, in which I said all sorts of nasty things about him, appeared. The reason why he came round is complicated and boring, but suffice it to say that books were exchanged, in a spirit of mutual diplomatic tension.

I offered him a choice of red wine, whisky, or tea. It was five o’clock. (He was punctual, which unsurprised me. He chose tea; he is not a fan of intoxication. Aha! I thought, he’ll love this: as a foe of modernity in many of its aspects, such as duvets and central heating, he will appreciate the fact that I do not use tea bags. Loose Assam leaves, put into a scalded teapot. “Conservative in everything except politics” was a formulation – originally, I think, applied to George Orwell – that Peter’s late brother was fond of, and I thought my old-fashionedness would soothe him.

Not exactly: he noticed I was pouring semi-skimmed milk into the mug. Of course you put the milk in last when you are using tea bags. When pouring from a pot, you put the milk in first. Milk poured in afterwards does not emulsify satisfactorily. If you are one of those people who say “but how do you know if you’ve put in the right amount of milk?” then I exhort you to start trusting your pouring arm.

Semi-skimmed milk, I learned quickly, is a no-no in the world of P Hitchens.

“But Orwell himself,” I replied urbanely, “said that milk that was too creamy made the tea taste unpleasant. Not, of course, that I believe everything Orwell said, but on tea-making he is sound.”

Mr Hitchens demurred, saying that Orwell was referring to the equivalent of what we know today as Gold Top. This allowed me to go off on a little rant, a positive, life-enhancing rant, about how good Gold Top is, how my children love it, etc. We moved into the living room. I noticed my shoes were more old-fashioned than his. Come to think of it, they may have been older than him. They’re almost certainly older than me.

There was a mood of civility in the air. Slightly strained, perhaps, like his tea, but unmistakably present. Part of the reason was that I had mentioned our forthcoming meeting on a social medium, and two of my friends, one a well-known novelist, the other a well-known columnist, both women, both left wing, had asked me, extremely sincerely, to pass on their best wishes. They knew him of old, had worked with him, were fond of him. These are two women whose opinions I take very seriously indeed. The Peter Hitchens I knew, of column and Question Time panel, was clearly not the whole picture. If these women say he’s Basically All Right, or All Right enough to ask me to pass on their best wishes, then that is pretty much good enough for me.

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me. I was becoming increasingly conscious that, the next day, in newsagents throughout the land, the latest edition of this magazine would appear, and in it, on page 82, would be a column by me, which contained several jokes at the expense of P Hitchens, Esq. And I knew that this column would not escape his vigilance. I massaged the bridge of my nose and launched into a pre-emptive apology. “I think I had better tell you...”

He seemed to take it fairly well, though I’d not given him the full nature of my assault. When we were tossing insults back and forth on Twitter, he seemed barely human; now, in my living room, he all too clearly was. I suppose this is how we all see our enemies on Twitter: as botched versions of the Turing Test, spouting opinions that are quite clearly wrong in spite of all our well-reasoned arguments. The only variable is how quickly the arguments de-evolve into base invective. I have my own theory about this. It involves Lacan, so I’ll spare you.

A couple of days later I received an email from him, courteously asking after me and my latest troubles, the ones I can’t write about due to their immensity. It also contained the precise quote from Orwell regarding milk in tea. (“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.” You have to love that “ninthly”.) “Tempus mutatur,” I replied... but noted, too, that there was no mention of That Column. I was rather impressed. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear