A year ago, people were asking, ‘Where’s the beef?’ in Labour’s ‘One Nation’ policy agenda. While we’ve yet to be served up anything resembling a fillet steak there is certainly a sense of a some sort of protein-enriched amuse-bouche in Labour’s weekly policy announcements of late.
This morning’s offering came from Rachel Reeves on the key issue of ‘social security’. Labour is being set an almost-impossible challenge. Show it can be trusted to be ‘tough on welfare’ while simultaneously abandoning, for want of a better phrase, the third way policies of past. No doubt pieces like these from Dan Hodges celebrating the failure to accomplish the impossible are already pre-written before Reeves has even uttered a word (Come to think of it, I can’t say I even saw Hodges there this morning).
His call to ‘shut up about welfare’ could not be more misplaced. Support for a system designed to tackle the giant evils of idleness and want has taken a significant dive in the last 30 years. The latest British Attitude Survey shows support specifically for spending on the unemployed is half of what it was when Labour came to power in 1997, and a third of what it was under Margaret Thatcher, at just 12 per cent.
So, in what was a well-trailed announcement, Reeves today made it clear that Labour will put restrictions on job seeker’s allowance – namely for those without the basic skills (English, numeracy, IT) who refuse training and for immigrants who have yet to make a contribution to the system. Both are populist announcements designed to send the right signals to those, rightly or wrongly, who feel that their tax pounds are being sucked up by a swath of ‘lazy scroungers’ and ‘welfare tourists.’ To reinforce the point we heard a lot of the ‘dignity in the value of work’ and ‘the clue is in the name – Labour – the party of work.’ Those in the party who will question today’s announcement would do well to heed this. Defending the state is a delicate task.
In the detail of Reeves’ speech there were some very reassuring statements for those of us who want to get Britain working again – I think she called it ‘restoring the British promise.’ Beyond the headlines four things stood out, which hopefully we will see more of. First, we were talking about social security and not welfare; second, ‘rights and responsibility’ – a core pillar of the Blair agenda is back with a vengeance, as is, third, the pragmatism of ‘what matters is what works’; and finally there was a strong hint of power returning to local and regional governments.
Trying to reframe the debate to be one about social security rather than welfare is an important step in trying to rebuild support for a system that has broadly served our nation well until now. It also moves the debate beyond dole queues and firmly onto the issue of the working poor – not least the 1.47m part-time workers who want to work full-time, but because they can’t cost us £4.7bn in lost tax revenues. Tackling the question of how we reward work is not going to be easy but without an answer we stand no chance of tackling the cost of living crisis.
Part of that answer lies in improving enforcement on the minimum wage, incentivising businesses to pay the living wage with tax breaks, tightening the legislation on zero-hours contracts and, perhaps most interestingly, proposals to force organisations and businesses to be transparent about their wage structures. The latter is a continuing part of a narrative that doesn’t just speak to citizen power, but consumer power. It suggests a belief in the power of consumer choice can be brought to bear on businesses to make different choices that will see our economy restructured – in the same way that the FairTrade Movement has persuaded the likes of Cadbury’s to adopt the standard.
By talking about social security, Labour further entrenches the ideas of reciprocity, rights with responsibilities and not least the contributory principle. Reeves told us today she is exploring the idea that a higher rate of JSA should be paid for the first six weeks for those who have paid contributions for more than four or five years. It was one of the more radical ideas floated today. Such a move would cushion the blow for those made redundant, help them get back to work quicker, and address the fact that more of us are property-owning than when the benefits system was first created. Most importantly of all it would acknowledge how much global labour markets have moved on, becoming increasingly insecure and more vulnerable to economic shock, making a job for life a thing of the past. It would make welfare what it is supposed to be: a pillar of security in place of fear, not a lifestyle.
Third, many of the solutions trailed today may not have been radical or imaginative but they speak to some of the root causes of the issue at hand. You could class them as ‘no-brainers’. The skills assessment trailed heavily in the press may already be in operation, but, as Reeves pointed out, currently only after three years. She questions why you wouldn’t do this on day one, given that over half JSA claimants don’t even have the basic IT skills to use email so necessary for even applying for a job – and who can argue with that? Such pragmatism may not be popular with core party members, but ultimately we should learn that ideology for the sake of it never makes for good policy.
This brings me on to the failed work programme which we were told will be scrapped. In its place will be a new scheme with ‘central and local governments working together,’ so that they can be ‘integrated with locally developed enterprise and economic strategies.’
This suggests that we will see more of the Manchester/Liverpool/Leeds-style city deals with more power being devolved to the municipalities. This will mean local councils being challenged to drive their own economies forward and potentially become more responsible for their claimant population. While there was little detail on this specifically, such moves that drive competition between city-regions is far more likely to drive up the national economic output than some centrally defined over-statist intervention or ‘industrial’ white paper.
In conclusion, today’s announcement was about so much more than ‘getting tough on welfare.’ It was a strong reiteration of our values – a belief in making work pay, acknowledging that rights only come with responsibilities, and that sticking to these are the only way to successfully defend the welfare state. If this is coupled with further decentralisation to the city-regions, this is, as I said, a strong amuse-bouche for a manifesto fit for the 21st century. Bring on the main course.
Joe Goldberg is cabinet member for finance on Haringey council and tweets @joedgoldberg
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