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.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution