4th April 2016
Can’t Get There From Here
It’s difficult to fully assess the consequences of Ian Duncan Smith’s (IDS) resignation from the government last month and what effect the former Work & Pensions Secretary’s broadside against David Cameron- and particularly George Osborne- will have on the Tory Party, particularly its potential leader-to-be. Bloody events from Lahore and Brussels, along with an industrial dispute reminiscent of the 1970s (steel, not junior medics since you ask) have prevented us from seeing clearly where the wavelets from the IDS resignation will peter out, but it has drawn blood from an administration that even in the gloomy days of January looked imperious.
Tim Carter writing on MiddleVision a few days after the resignation was accurate- if blunt- in terms of the hypocrisy, vengefulness and spite implicit in the Duncan Smith resignation. And while I agree with Tim on the politics of the whole farrago, I think there are policy issues that shouldn’t get lost in fallout from it.
It’s easy to mock Duncan Smith’s Damascene conversion to the cause of social justice following his much vaunted trip to Glasgow’s Easterhouse estate in 2002 and his subsequent setting up of the Centre for Social Justice two years later. The cynicism is compounded, I suspect, because a lot of his concern appears to be an expression of his Christianity, not helped that the man himself has given the impression of being a latter day William Carey at times. However it is difficult to deny- though some will try- that low levels of educational achievement, joblessness and a lack of opportunities that not only affect life chances, but life expectancy, are real problems facing many communities in Britain.
It’s not surprising that the Labour Party are enjoying the painful spasms Duncan Smith’s resignation has inflicted on the Tories and I’m not so po-faced as to suggest they shouldn’t enjoy it for a while’ But- as the last general election should have taught us- concerns about welfare have a high prevalence among the electorate and simply opposing cuts, while enjoying George Osborne’s discomfort, just won’t do Labour’s long term electoral chances any good whatsoever. If it wants to become a serious contender as a party of government, Labour will need a credible message on welfare reform, or at the very least a position that doesn’t see increasing amounts of welfare support as a triumph.
So where could Labour begin in developing a more progressive approach to welfare reform? Well it must be clear about two issues and become unashamed about a final one.
Firstly, Labour needs to be unambiguous that its stands by being the party of work. The party has, rightly so, a reputation for social justice and sticking up for the hard up and hard done to in our society; but it must also concede there is absolutely nothing desirable about successive generations of families growing up with the sapping effects of unemployment.
Secondly, Labour needs to be clear that welfare reforms may take twenty years before they begin to have major positive effects within communities up and down the country. Labour does need to have a convincing, sans magic money tree, message on the economy- including the budget deficit- but it cannot be done on the back of continually raiding the welfare budget.
Which leads me to my third point. Labour will have to make the case for borrowing now, at current low rates, in order to invest significantly in the social infrastructure- particularly education, housing and civic utilities- that can start to turn problem communities into assets. It should be unashamed about how it will use the state’s deep pockets and its bargaining power to effect the changes that will eventually begin to transform lives. As with most plans, the devil will be in the detail of how to make it operationally viable. We also need to admit there will be failures as well as successes. But Labour- as opposed to its main rival- will be able to credibly claim and demonstrate, that it will actively be concerned with those who lose out, rather than shrug and regard them as collateral damage. The ability to transition from one set of circumstances to another is the real task of policy makers and politicians. Labour needs to develop these talents, away from its leader’s gaze if necessary.
This is not, however, an argument for extending the reach of the state. Properly coordinated public policy developed at the centre of government- with the necessary investment to deliver- can only be transformative if it is left to local communities to decide what best suits their particular needs. Labour should start talking about how we use the assets-private, public and voluntary- that already sit within communities and how they can be freed up, but are too often wasted in the endless contests between different types of organisations, primarily focused- in theory at least- in delivering the same goals. How local plans are drawn up that focus on improving lives rather than organisations will be a clear challenge, but the tough stuff always is. And while ‘thinking big’ might appear like pie-in-the-sky, flip-chart work from a weekend policy seminar, Labour will have to embrace it and- let’s face it- what else are we currently offering? This isn’t about radical ideas; it’s about pragmatic solutions to a key problem that clearly worries voters. Investing today to save tomorrow, as well as prevention is better than cure are messages people understand.
The discussions- no doubt- will get caught up in the ongoing debate about the virtues of state over private or vice versa; arguments that continually seek to infantilise our approach to politics, public policy and the discussions that surrounds them. However if we continue with these stand offs while people are losing years to poverty then people will rightfully be able to conclude that Labour and its representatives are full of sybaritic guff, an already abundant commodity across the political spectrum. Which takes us back again (partially) to Mr Duncan Smith.
By Steven Duckworth
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