Recent Editorials

One Notion Labour: The Condition of Britain: If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

The latter part of this title is a little disingenuous of course since Labour has made precious little effort in the past four years to provide an alternative narrative to the Tory’s blame-it-all-on-the-unemployed Four Year Welfare Hate, which has underpinned the lion’s share of its austerity cuts. Apart from token objections to one or two of the harshest aspects of the Tory welfare ‘reforms’, such as the worst excesses of the notorious Work Capability Assessments facilitated by Atos (a contract which New Labour introduced, so a particular embarrassment to the party) which has seen up to 50,000 sick and disabled claimants DIE within six weeks of being declared “fit to work”, and the equally despicable blight of the bedroom tax (which, however, Labour only opposed at the last minute after it had realised this particular policy was the most unpopular among the generally highly popular benefit cuts), Ed Miliband’s One Notion Labour has ultimately come down dead-centre –or should that be ‘centre-right’– on this, perhaps the pivotal issue coming up to next year’s election: NOT for any of the reasons that the Tories have made it so of course, but because it is about how we as a nation treat the most vulnerable and impoverished.

Labour could have made this an Opposition-defining cause by taking up the less popular but infinitely more principled and compassionate stance that at a time of banker-caused austerity those already with the least resources in society should be the first to be protected against any cuts. That is the narrative of the Left –but as we know, much to our nation’s ongoing detriment, Labour has long ditched the Left or any principles associated with Socialism (which is also one of the reasons The Recusant supports the Green Party, the only left-wing party with one pair of feet in Parliament).

But instead, Miliband’s Labour has idly and spinelessly allowed itself to be dragged by tabloid-and-Tory-misinformed ‘public opinion’ on welfare (or, as it should be called, social security), when they could have –had any of their front bench had any actual convictions– fought to dismantle this false consensus and construct an oppositional ‘public opinion’. That is what politicians used to do, what they used to be all about; but nowadays, our Parliament of careerists, inclusive of Labour’s dynastic Primrose Hill set, now refer to such old-style politicians as “conviction politicians”, when once they were the political norm –and this very phrase says it all about their own generation: non-conviction politicians.

So in the last couple of days we’ve been presented with the best One Notion Labour can come up with after four years, and which reads, essentially, like a watered-down ‘social contract’ in the hoary and deeply un-ambitious tradition of One Nation Toryism –which of course complements Miliband’s Disraelisation of the Labour Movement to re-occupy the ‘old’ centre- to centre-right ground of British social policy, which is more Harold Macmillan or Ted Heath than Harold Wilson or James Callaghan.

One of the chief contributors to this new Noblesse Oblige Labourism is ex-‘Blue’ Labour mandarin Jon Cruddas, a man of no doubt good intentions but muddled dialectic. Below is the gist of centre-right thinktank IPPR entitled, with fashionable Thirties-style pathologisation of the national and industrial ‘sickness’, The Condition of Britain, collated by The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour. This neoliberal document seems to be effectively servingas Labour's proto-manifesto for the future of the welfare state. Unfortunately, both the diagnosis and prescription of this gutless piece of defeatist acquiescence to the morally faulty Tory equation deficit = welfare state, is grossly wrong, disingenuous, lazy, complacent and ‘public opinion’-chasing rather than ‘public opinion’-forming (this editor’s comments bracketed throughout):

Labour to cut youth benefits and focus on path to work

Labour leader sets out reforms based on training incentives as poll finds 78% of voters think welfare system unfair

Ed Miliband will set out Labour's first plans for cuts to the welfare system, ending out-of-work benefits for roughly 100,000 18-to-21-year-olds and replacing them with a less costly means-tested payment dependent on training.

The move is designed to symbolise Labour's determination to reform welfare, making it more closely linked to what people pay in, as well as cutting the benefits bill.

[As if there hasn’t already been an obsessive and wholly disproportionate amount of welfare ‘reform’ in the past four years!]

"Britain's young people who do not have the skills they need for work should be in training, not on benefits," the Labour leader will say. It is essential to reform welfare to bring down a "wall of scepticism" among voters who don't believe that politicians will make the system fairer, he will argue.

[Yet again the subjective term ‘fairer’ is trotted out with special implication that any ‘unfairness’ in the welfare system is solely in terms of what precious little the claimants get out of it, and how much it ‘milks’ the taxpayer –though not, conveniently, when it comes to landlord capitalisation of unregulated private rents in order to cream off ever greater amounts of housing benefit, for which claimants, rather than landlords or regulation-lite politicians, are apparently solely to blame! Rather than the unfairness of such punitive regimens of sanctions and penalties for specious reasons, and the fact that out-of-work benefit rates in the UK are less than half the average amount of many Eurozone countries. Plus the fact that only 4% of the entire welfare budget goes jobseekers –while around 80% is spent on pensions!.]

Miliband's move reflects a recognition of anger among some voters that some people are getting "something for nothing" out of the welfare system. A YouGov poll for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the leading centre-left thinktank, published on Thursday, finds that 78% believe that the welfare system is failing to reward people who have worked and contributed to it.

[How many more times do we have to listen to the insulting and preposterous phrase “something for nothing” in relation to the benefits system? Even if that had ever been the case –which we’d argue it hasn’t– the answer is surely not to go to the other polar extreme and end up with a system which offers “nothing for something”!? Because that’s where we’ve headed already with jobseekers being forced to work for free and full time in Poundland workfare schemes and mandatory community volunteering].

Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary, insisted in an interview with the Today programme on Thursday morning that the policy was not punitive but was designed to get people the skills they needed to secure a job.

She said: "The youth allowance that will replace JSA [jobseeker's allowance] will be paid at £57 a week, which is the same as young person's JSA but it will be means tested on parental income. It is tapered off between £20,000 and £42,000.

"It is treating people in further education in the same way as we treat people in higher education. It is not saying all young people are required to go back and get this training; it is if people don't have level 3 qualifications – the equivalent of an A-level."

The removal of JSA for those with skills below level 3 would affect seven out of 10 of the 18-to-21-year-olds currently claiming JSA, and initially save £65m.

Miliband will reveal further plans to make welfare more conditional by linking benefit payments to national insurance contributions.

Under his plans, people would only be able to claim the higher rate JSA of £71 a week after they have paid National Insurance for five years, instead of the current two. The contributory element of the welfare system has been eroded in Britain and is much smaller than in most European economies.

[This is the most disingenuous sentence in this piece: not only is it, in the first place, uncorroborated by any actual evidence, but, moreover, it conveniently omits to mention, even if most ‘European economies’ (bar Troika-controlled Spain and Greece) have a higher element of conditionality in their welfare systems, this is in proportion to the fact that they pay out on average over double the amounts in out-of-work benefits than we do in the UK! Which also betrays claims of an “over generous” British welfare system and “benefit tourism” in Britain as absolutely absurd and spurious in the extreme: why come to Britain for benefits when you can get double the amount in France, Germany and most of Scandinavia?

If it is the case that many people “don’t want to work” in the UK, benefit rates have little if nothing to do with it: it is the punishing and dehumanising nature of the British ‘work ethic’ which is the main cause of such employment apathy, as has been the case ever since the evisceration of the more authentic working culture of core industries ruthlessly crushed under Thatcherism. If British politicians want more “conditionality” in the unemployment contract, then perhaps they could increase out-of-work benefit rates in proportion to such extra demands –say, in line with the basic minimum of much of the Eurozone, for instance? But no, that would lack the sufficient chic de brutalité of the British work ethic, wouldn’t it?

Instead, Westminster offers its own new social contract of “nothing for something”: work for your benefits, but without any top ups –oh, and not just a few hours a week, no, but full time! It seems that an inextricable aspect to the introducing an even greater ‘contributory’ element to the welfare system is that simultaneously the actual government contributory onus –of actually paying anything resembling a basic subsistence amount in out-of-work benefits, is pretty much eroded in itself.]

Labour officials said the switch in spending by abolishing JSA for young people was not designed to be punitive, but to incentivise them to train. The longer qualifying period for higher-rate JSA will mean those who qualify will be able to receive additional help worth as much as £20 to £30 a week, they added.

[So, just as the Tories, One Notion Labour also believes that you ‘incentivise’ the poor and unemployed by making them poorer while also denying them the right to authentic employment, while you ‘incentivise’ the super rich with tax breaks and the recession-causing bankers and speculators with more bonuses. Fag-paper, anyone?].

The Labour leader, struggling with poor personal poll ratings, will be responding to a major report by the IPPR setting out as many as 30 radical measures to rebuild public faith in politics and public institutions in an era of austerity.

Two separate polls sent further dire messages about Miliband's personal standing, with one poll by Ipsos MORI showing a small majority of voters wanting him replaced as party leader, and another by YouGov claiming voters would be more likely to back Labour if it was led by his brother, the former foreign secretary David Miliband.

Miliband will argue that any reforming politician must deal with doubts about the ability of politics "to address the long-standing pressures on work, family and people's sense of fair play that has been piling up for decades".

[What “sense of fair play”? Does Miliband mean a majority consensus which thinks £57 a week in JSA is “too generous”, that it’s absolutely fine for 2 million families including many in work to be dependent on food banks, for 40,000 sick and disabled claimants to have died within six weeks of being declared “fit for work” by Atos, for malnutrition, street homelessness and suicides to be spiralling into national pathologies…? Because if that is seriously Ed Miliband’s notion of “fair play” then his moral compass is as skewed as the Tories’].

He will admit one reason for such scepticism is that "people think the problems are huge, but they don't believe they can be solved because of the financial problems the country faces. Many people think that in hard times, politicians' promises are all hot air."

But big reforms need not require big spending, he will argue. "Our country continues to confront a fiscal situation the like of which we have not seen for generations, the result of a financial crash the like of which none of us has ever seen," he will say.

"We cannot just hope to make do and mend, and we cannot borrow and spend money to paper over the cracks."

Writing in today's Guardian, the IPPR's director, Nick Pearce, goes further, saying: "Gone are the days when economic growth could generate enough resources to redistribute income without making painful choices. Even with a different economic agenda, there is little prospect of any government elected in 2015 spending its way to greater equality."

[We note the Labour version of the Tories’ ubiquitous “tough choices” and “difficult decisions”: “painful choices” –and we sympathise with inherited millionaire Mr Miliband and hope he finds a suitable analgesic as he endures the ‘pain’ of making his future Tory-lite ‘choices’ on behalf of those whose literal pain and misery he and his dynasty will never have to endure themselves].

Pearce urges Labour to reject a business as usual path in which the government "would tax a little more and cut a little less, leaving the architecture of the state untouched and the current framework of services and social security in place".

Miliband will also back proposals for local councils to be given more control of the ballooning housing benefit budget. The report suggests the housing benefit bill will reach £25.4bn, with real terms rises expected for the next five years.

Miliband argues the IPPR report shows that even when there is no money to spend radical reform can be started in the fields of health, child care, welfare, social care and housing. But he is going to be cautious about embracing some of its specific plans drawn up over the past 18 months, including a £2bn child care package, funded through scrapping plans for a marriage tax allowance, freezing child benefit and reducing pension tax reliefs.

The report also argues that there needs to be a switch of government resources from tax transfers and credits to delivering services, something that might require abandoning the expensive target to eliminate child poverty.

It will also propose a radical devolution of power to local councils, including over housing benefit and welfare to work for the disabled. In probably the biggest proposal, the IPPR will argue that the left has to restore the contributory principle in the welfare system. Pearce argues social security for the unemployed has become a liability for social democrats. Turning the issue into a source of strategic strength will require rebuilding the reciprocity that underpins it, restoring the contributory principle and giving new life to the idea of national insurance. "Fiscal constraints should lead us away from means-tested residualisation of welfare, not further towards it".

There is frustration among some Labour policy leaders at Miliband's reluctance to embrace more of the report, designed to show how the left set out a redistributionist agenda in the post-crash world. It has had the support of Jon Cruddas, head of the Labour policy review.

[What a surprise! Those dyed-in-the-wool New Labourites won’t be happy until Labour switches to a blue rose and re-names itself The Not Quite the Tory Party Party].

As if all this wasn’t politically pathetic enough, which newspaper should sweep in straight away as apologist for Labour’s latest stentorian capitulation to neoliberal austerity defeatism and dumping on the unemployed in an equally intellectually lazy, deeply unimaginative and morally gutless ‘editorial’, but that old ‘leading liberal’ fence-sitter, The Guardian:

The Guardian view on welfare reform

Labour needs to reassure voters that it is not the party of something for nothing

The single inexorable fact that Labour cannot escape between now and the next election is George Osborne's failure to cut the deficit.

[The phrase ‘inexorable fact’ is almost nonsensical: how can a ‘fact’ be ‘relentless’, which is what ‘inexorable’ means? ]

Whoever wins has already committed themselves to another parliament of austerity. Conservatives are turning that to their advantage by making the campaign a macho contest between traditional Tory dedication to shrinking the welfare state, and Labour. They have read their British social attitudes survey and they know that popular support for the solidarity principle has weakened. They know that voters think Labour is still the party of tax and spend. That is why the party chairman Grant Shapps was denouncing the cost of Labour's overtrailed plans for the young unemployed even though the proposal as a whole is revenue neutral. It is also why the thoughtful and comprehensive proposals for welfare reform from one of the most influential thinktanks on the left, the IPPR, are so important. Less big money, more big ideas.

[But the proposals have no ideas, let alone big ones! And precisely those criticisms Alan Rusbridger –sorry–‘The Guardian’s editorial’– directs at the Tories, all of which of course apply to them, also, however, apply to Ed Miliband and One Notion Labour. So part of this paragraph could have just as easily and accurately have been written about the so-called ‘Opposition’ simply by substituting a couple of details and slightly rearranging the syntax:

Labour is turning to their advantage the current anti-welfare consensus by making their own proposals every bit as macho as the Tory’s, so now they are equally dedicated to shrinking the welfare state. They have read their British social attitudes survey and they know that popular support for the solidarity principle has weakened, but Labour simply can’t be bothered to try and rebuild that principle by highlighting the devastating impact of welfare cuts on the inhumanely vilified unemployed and arguing for human dignity and compassion. They know that voters think they are the party of tax and spend –so, purely opportunistically, Labour has now decided to simply ditch spending altogether and keep taxes as low as possible so as to claw back the purple-rinse vote and win next year’s general election, without actually knowing why –other than associated pay rises and prestige of regaining government– they want to achieve either objective!]

The Condition of Britain report aspires to be a philosophical milestone for the centre left.

[Words fail us with that line! Dies Labour seriously think that just another populist, red-top-pushed, Tory-lite spot of welfare-bashing could be called a ‘philosophical milestone’? And ‘centre-left’? What planet is Labour on? None of these proposals have anything to do with the ‘centre-left’ –this is pure centre-right, capitalism-patching neoliberalism, almost a textbook example! Note also the interesting ambiguity of the this title, ‘Condition of Britain’: it could either mean, as mentioned, country’s ‘condition’ as in its current state, or it could mean a new ‘condition’ in terms of an obligation expected of the unemployed, i.e. a new ‘conditionality’; or perhaps it’s a ‘clever’ play on both!].

It envisages a rewired state that takes the big strategic decisions, but devolves more to cities, towns and neighbourhoods and taps into the non-party political world that thrives in communities across the country. It recognises that institutions – such as the NHS – can build support and loyalty in way cash benefits do not, so it proposes redirecting part of the child benefit budget to children's centres and some of the housing budget away from rent-inflating housing benefit to tackle the supply side issue of the housing shortage.

But it detects a crisis in public support for welfare spending.

[There has been a ‘crisis’ in ‘welfare spending’ for four years now: it’s called the ‘welfare reforms’! We think Labour is currently suffering its own crisis of ‘political lag!’]

Not for old age pensions, nor payments to the disabled, the "deserving" claimants, but for benefits that go to people of working age.

[Oh of course, like the Tories, they mustn’t rattle the grey vote or disturb the middle-class part of the welfare budget –and note the Purnellian “deserving” paradigm rearing its ugly head again].

Last year's social attitudes survey shows why. Where spending on health and education retain strong support, the proportion who think more should be spent on jobless benefits has fallen from a third in the early 1980s to less than one in 10 now. More than half think unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one, and an astonishing 80% think people fiddle their claims.

[So effectively The Guardian is saying here exactly what we said earlier: that Labour is simply capitulating to these trends in distorted ‘public opinion’ rather than combating them! Talk about dialectically inconsistent!]

The powerful distorting lens of media coverage plays a big role here, but whatever its cause, this is worrying evidence of the erosion of the popular buy-in without which the welfare state cannot survive.

[Exactly –so The Guardian and Labour’s answer is not to oppose this ‘distorting lens’ and expose it for what it is, but just to give into its effects and try to out-Tory the Tories on welfare rather than provide a compassionate counter-argument!?]

The IPPR's answer is to refresh the Beveridge principle of social insurance for in-work benefits – paying, say, a variable rate of unemployment benefit that reflected what had been paid in, and for how long. This is not new territory: Labour has been thinking aloud about how to revive the contributory principle since the last election.

[No, this isn’t ‘anything new’: we already have a damned ‘contributory principle’: JSA claimants have to prove they are actively looking for work in order to draw their weekly pittance, while those on ESA now have a one year time-limit for their contributory claim which then automatically elapses, in spite of how much NI contributions they might have previously paid through employment, and they have to now re-claim for the lower ‘income-related ESA’. So, in actual fact, far from already having a ‘contributory principle’, we actually now have an ‘anti-contributory principle’ in the benefits system with regards to ESA: it doesn’t matter whether you’ve worked for the last ten years prior to getting ill, you now have a one year time-limit on your ‘contribution-based ESA’!]

But that doesn't make it uncontroversial.

[No, just thoroughly unimaginative, apart from also being punitive and spineless].

Not surprising: when Ed Miliband's proposals today to bring in an earn-or-learn qualification for jobseeker's allowance for 18- to 21-year-olds were widely interpreted as a way of cutting the welfare bill, it is easy to see why there are fears that Mr Miliband is simply trying to head off the onslaught by sounding tougher than the Tories are on cuts.

[Yes, because that’s precisely what he’s doing!]

He risks a perception that the system would be more generous to some at the expense of others who, through circumstances beyond their control, had worked for lower pay or fewer years. That is why the IPPR report which embeds the proposal in a broader discussion about mutual responsibility and social solidarity is so important.

The truth about what we spend on welfare is almost buried in its critics' welter of misrepresentation. Britain spends only a little above the OECD average as a share of GDP on social assistance and considerably less than most other European countries, particularly France and Germany. The proportion of average in-work earnings met by jobseeker's allowance is just 14%.

[Here The Guardian makes the correct diagnoses to much of the problem underpinning the welfare issue today –i.e. relentless Tory and tabloid misinformation and propaganda– and states the true facts of benefit expenditure, but then, incomprehensibly, and with breathtaking intellectual invertebracy, switches back to an into expedient ‘damage-limitation’ defeatism:]

But fact-checking is not enough. The most important truth is that public attitudes are strongly influenced by a sense of fairness, of who deserves what. Restoring a small element of the contributory principle could be a necessary step to restoring solidarity.

But none of this makes any sense at all! The Guardian makes the correct diagnosis but then offers its support to Labour’s incompatible and incorrect prescription! This is the most ill-conceived and defeatist polemic one is likely to read.

Certainly Rusbridger, sorry, 'The Guardian' demonstrates a genius at defeating its own argument and brilliantly undermining its own viewpoint. It is dialectic on self-destruct! Truly inexplicable. But if these extracts are anything to go by, Condition of Britain isn’t so much a ‘philosophical milestone’ as an ‘opinion-poll millstone’.

The Recusant concurs a Compass spokesperson whose verdict on the new conditionality of youth jobseekers, core to The Condition of Britain, is, to paraphrase, that the argument isn’t won on the basis of ‘who can kick the poor the hardest’. Though, pitifully, that seems just the case in our contemporary Cruel Brutannia.

To all readers: for God’s sake VOTE GREEN in 2015.

A.M. 21 June 2014