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The Tories have stopped talking about austerity. That doesn't mean it's gone away

Until 2020, inflation will erode the value of benefits, leaving millions of families feeling the pinch.

Being in government has a great many advantages – not least that you have much more control over the political conversation. Even a small announcement can lead to a front-page story or a prominent clip on the nightly news if it will affect people’s lives directly. (For the opposition, life is harder – you are usually reacting rather than acting and, unless there’s an election looming, it can be hard to get anyone to listen to what you’re saying, no matter how brilliant or daring.)

The corollary of this is that when a government shuts up about an issue, it can be easy to assume that it has gone away. That’s what has happened to “austerity”, a phrase that now feels faintly dated – the political equivalent of Kiefer Sutherland’s highlights in the first season of 24.

But the departure from the Treasury of George Osborne (a “hard-working family” all by himself) has not brought about the end of austerity. This month, the benefit changes from his 2015 welfare bill came into force, including the removal of tax credits worth £2,780 a year for third children – ­unless provably conceived through rape – and a large cut to the Widowed Parent’s Allowance. This can now be claimed for 18 months only, rather than until the youngest child has left school.

The changes also include a cut to the Employment and Support Allowance for those who are sick but expected to work in future; a directive that parents claiming Universal Credit must go back to work once their youngest child is three; and a freeze on some benefits until 2020 (their value will be eroded by inflation, which is predicted to hit 3 per cent). By any measure, austerity isn’t yet over; it’s just that the word has disappeared from the government’s vocabulary.


Tough times ahead

April also brings a rise in the tax-free personal allowance to £11,500 and an increase in threshold for the higher-rate band from £43,000 to £45,000. As the Resolution Foundation has noted, this policy creates millions of winners – but there is little overlap between them and the losers from the benefit changes happening at the same time.

Even when the higher minimum wage and the increased childcare allowance are taken into account, writes the foundation’s David Finch, “By 2020, we can expect the poorest half of households to be worse off from combined tax and benefit changes announced this parliament.” Without policy changes, inequality will rise. And if pay growth remains slow, the next few years will be “the toughest period on record for low- and middle-income families”. Still, it’s hard to get airtime for such concerns when Brexit is so all-consuming. Perhaps we should beam some of this on to a rock?


Hard target

Because I am nothing if not up to the minute, I’ve celebrated the start of season four of Line of Duty on BBC1 by watching the first series on Netflix. The police thriller was created by Jed Mercurio, a former doctor who also wrote the hospital drama Bodies. (That featured Keith Allen, in the best performance of his career, as a magnificently sardonic senior consultant.) I keep reading complaints that Line of Duty has “become unbelievable” and I have to remind people that in the first series a senior detective under suspicion of corruption does a poo on the driver’s seat of the officer investigating him. That shark was pre-jumped, people.

But it’s great television. And, like Bodies, the real villain is not a person – not the drug kingpin who chops off people’s fingers or the rubbish surgeon who botches operations – but the target-driven bureaucracy that creates perverse incentives and encourages the professions to close ranks around incompetent colleagues.


Kerbs, their enthusiasm

On 29 March I hosted a New Statesman event with the outspoken Labour backbencher Jess Phillips, whose book, Everywoman, is (in the best possible way) like sitting next to her on the bus. I know there’s a great hunger for an inspiring opposition at the moment and hearing about Labour’s work on domestic violence and rape trials was a good counterbalance to any sense of fatalism. Phillips also pointed out that her constituents in Birmingham Yardley care far less about the minutiae of Brexit than about the more pressing issue of dropped kerbs, a lesson that I will try to keep in mind.

Incidentally, a week earlier, I chaired another NS discussion between Charles Falconer, Nick Clegg and Gina Miller about leaving the European Union. I asked Clegg and Falconer if they had ever found themselves unable to get something done in government because of the overweening power of the EU. Both said no.


Heptarchy in the UK

My other guilty TV pleasure is the second series of The Last Kingdom, based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels about 9th-century Wessex. The protagonist is a long-haired Saxon orphan called Uhtred (who is always keen to remind us he is also the son of Uhtred; perhaps Matt Ridley’s son does the same). But the standout performance is David Dawson as King Alfred, who does a lot of acting despite mostly standing very still with his arms clasped behind his back.

Anyway, it’s particularly fun to watch this series now, when the British Union seems to be splintering. I’ve decided to become a strong campaigner for the heptarchy. Yes, I might need a passport to visit my parents in Mercia but, on the plus side, we could exile Nigel Farage to the new kingdom of Kent and refuse him a work permit to appear on TV programmes recorded in Wessex.

Helen Lewis will be in conversation with Jess Phillips and Catherine Mayer on 23 April. Details:

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

Photo: Getty
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I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.