Local solutions are the key to full employment

Labour is learning from countries where local services are trusted to match job seekers with vacancies.

In the pages of this week’s New Statesman the ever excellent Ian Mulheirn takes a look at this government’s employment policy. Needless to say it’s not a roaring success.

For proof, you need look no further than Wednesday’s unemployment figures. For the second month in a row, the number of people actually in work fell; that means our economy has quite simply stopped created jobs and is starting to lose them. Unemployment rose. Long term unemployment rose – and we now live in a country where one in five people out of work has been on the dole for more than two years. Yet in spite of the obvious need Ministers continue to resist Labour’s calls for a Compulsory Jobs Guarantee to end the prospect of a life on the dole.

Instead Iain Duncan Smith presses on with a Work Programme that doesn’t work, leaving more and more people getting further and further away from the labour market. And what’s more he has failed the very test he set himself his during fleeting reinvention as a compassionate conservative.

Back in Easterhouse the future Secretary of State for Work and Pensions told the world that, “A nation that leaves its vulnerable behind, diminishes its own future.” But after three years of power he isn’t bringing unemployment down on Britain’s poorest communities, he’s watching it rise.

Today, three quarters of the British estates most blighted by unemployed have seen worklessness rise since May 2010, and in two thirds long term unemployment has continued to spiral out of control.

Yet for all the promises they made in Opposition, this government has done nothing to re-skill the unemployed for the jobs that do exist. And the truth is skills are more important than ever – in today’s global market place, low skilled British workers are competing with workers paid twelve times less. The result is more than half of those without a skill are out of work, and the number is rising.

More and more of our low-skilled or no-skilled workers now live in Britain’s poorest communities. In fact, some of Britain’s poorest communities are home to five times more unskilled workers than Britain’s richest communities, and the truth is Ministers are allowing them to fall further and further behind.

The answer to the problem of poor places - as I argued in my speech to IPPR North last night – can be found in countries that are localising back to work services so workers can be better connected with local jobs, saving the state a fortune in benefit payments along the way. In times as tough as these we certainly shouldn’t be afraid to borrow the best ideas from our friends and neighbours.

In Germany, their more localised approach has contributed to saving billions of euros in welfare payments by driving up the employment rate. Local jobcentres work closely with surrounding schools and have deep roots in the local labour market which allows them to engage with employers far beyond the traditional low skill, low pay sectors.

Whilst in Canada, localised delivery of back to work programmes give local government the flexibility to establish their own priorities and to develop programmes to achieve them. Provinces and territories control how the funding is allocated in order to meet the needs of their particular labour markets, which in turn gives them the opportunity to apply local expertise to skills development, allocating targeted wage subsidies, and creating Job Creation Partnerships, to help provide useful work experience that leads to sustained employment

But it’s not just on foreign shores that decision makers are changing things on the ground with a more localised approach. Here in the UK, Labour authorities are already leading the way. Places like Glasgow, Wales, Newham and Liverpool are seeing Labour leaders innovate in a way that DWP officials in Whitehall cannot, by using local expertise to tackle unemployment head on. That’s how we start on the path back to full employment – and that’s how we rebuild Britain.

For Labour, that goal of full employment has always been the foundation for getting our country back on its feet. It was for Atlee’s Labour. It was for New Labour. It will be once more for One Nation Labour. Today the goal of full employment is important for a very simple reason. The faster we return to full employment, the faster we can pay down our debt. And the faster we can put the “something for something” back in to social security.

The Tories’ problem isn’t just that they are failing, but that they lost a belief in full employment many years ago, and never rediscovered it. That means more money spent on unemployment, so there is less to go around for working people and less for care.

After three years of failure we’ve got to find new ways to break out of this viscous circle. Seventy years ago, we set out a new path to full employment. Just as the Beveridge Report is a still a good roadmap for today, so too is the 1944 White Paper on Full Employment. It teaches us to be radical reformers to bring down the costs of social security; building exports; supporting public investment; fanning consumer demand – and taking determined action on jobs. It is a long road, but tackling poor places would be a big first step to getting our country back to full employment.

Next year we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the white paper on full employment. We should mark that anniversary not with empty words but with big plans. Plans to rebuild the path to full employment for new times. Plans which could help us modernise our social security system, rebuild trust, and crucially put its finances back on an even keel for the future.

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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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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