Wednesday, September 29, 2010

DWP: no one lives on benefits as a "lifestyle choice"

You may remember George Osborne claiming earlier this month that "people who think it's a lifestyle choice to just sit on out-of-work benefits - that lifestyle choice is going to come to an end. The money won't be there."

So I asked the Department of Work and Pensions how many people are currently making the lifestyle choice to live on benefits. After all, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had just announced that this was a massive problem, so I assumed they would be working on their new strategy to ensure that in future no one would make the lifestyle choice to live on benefits.

I just got the answer from the DWP:

"To qualify for a particular benefit an individual must meet the conditions that the government specifies. For example, the conditions for receiving Jobseeker's Allowance are that an individual must be available for, and actively seeking, work. The entitlement conditions for receipt of benefit are set out in the relevant social security regulations for the benefit(s) concerned. There is no condition in regulations that allows someone to receive benefit as a lifestyle choice."

So according to George Osborne, the key aim of welfare policy in future will be to stop people taking the lifestyle choice to live on benefits. According to the Department responsible it is already the case that no one can receive benefits as a lifestyle choice. What an utter, utter embarrassing shambles a fantastic example of joined up, effective government.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

New poll: Swing voters back "Red Ed" Miliband

Congratulations to Ed Miliband, who won the Labour leadership with a fantastic campaign.

He now faces the challenge of changing the Labour Party and making sure that it wins over the support of people who chose to vote Tory or Lib Dem in 2010. To achieve this, he should listen very carefully to research from one of Britain's foremost electoral strategists.

Lord Ashcroft.

Ashcroft has just released research called "What future for Labour?" It includes data from more than 2,000 people who voted Labour in 2005, but who deserted the party in 2010. The results are absolutely staggering.

One argument that obsesses political commentators is whether Labour should move to the left, or whether this would be electoral suicide. Amongst swing voters, 31% would be more likely to support Labour if it moved to the left, and 32% would be less likely. A plurality, 37% "are not sure what is meant by 'moving further to the left'".

A better example of an out of touch political elite would be harder to find. While right-wing newspapers shriek about "Red Ed" "lurching to the left", nearly 2 in 5 swing voters have no idea what they are talking about, and the rest are split evenly because those who think this would be a good or bad thing.

What about some of the specific policies which Ed Miliband and others put forward during the leadership campaign?

71% of swing voters back a graduate tax as a replacement for student fees
77% back a 50% rate of income tax on earnings over £100,000
63% want to scrap Trident
84% support increasing the minimum wage to more than £7/hour
81% support a High Pay Commission to restrict high salaries in the private sector
86% back a Mansion Tax on homes over £2 million
79% want to renationalise the railways

84% think that bankers are largely responsible for the current economic situation, and it is not fair that ordinary people have to bear the brunt of the cuts
77% think that people on higher incomes should have to pay significantly more taxes to minimise cuts in the public sector
65% would be more likely to vote Labour if they pledged a massive expansion of apprenticeship schemes to provide opportunities for young people

In terms of their values:

72% think that government should try to make society more equal, even if this means reducing living standards for those at the top
64% think that private companies should never have any part to play in delivering public services such as health and education
86% think that private company boards should have to include workforce representatives to ensure workers have a voice in key decisions affecting them
81% think higher education is a right, not a privilege
82% think that Britain should aspire to be more like Scandinavia, and less like America

This research does not show that swing voters are all secretly Labour Party lefties. They are hostile to immigration, want people on benefits to have to do community work, support tax breaks for people who use private healthcare, oppose legalising cannabis, are hostile to strikes, want Labour to apologise for the mistakes that they made in government, blame Labour for the necessity of making cuts, and are supportive of the coalition's attempts to reduce the deficit.

But Lord Ashcroft's research highlights a key dilemma for Ed Miliband and Labour. He won the leadership despite the opposition of newspapers, all of which endorsed his brother, and his success was due to his ability to adopt mainstream policies, from Iraq to the living wage, which most people supported, and his ability to articulate them with conviction and passion. The same challenge will present itself at the next general election. Those of his policies which swing voters strongly support are all ones which the political elite hate.

He will be advised and tempted to show the Westminster Village that he is not "Red Ed", that he shares their prejudices and won't "lurch to the left". But the evidence shows that most swing voters are at worst indifferent to the prospect of Labour moving to the left, that they want Labour to change, and that policies like a mansion tax, living wage and High Pay Commission are all fine examples that would help to show how Labour has changed for the better.

Friday, September 24, 2010

How Ken can win

Here's a few stats which show what a difference good local campaigns make, as well as the task facing Ken in defeating Boris in the London Mayoral elections in 2012.

I've looked at five London constituencies which Ken lost in 2008, and which were close fights in the General Election in 2010 Labour and the Tories. In some of these, Labour ran weak local campaigns with poor candidates, in others, they ran strong local campaigns with excellent candidates.

Across London, Boris led Ken by 44% to 37% in 2008.

In both Brentford & Isleworth and Harrow East, the Labour candidates had received a lot of criticism over their expenses.

In Brentford & Isleworth, Boris beat Ken by 44% to 37% (identical to the results across London as a whole), whereas in 2010 the Tories beat Labour by 37% to 34%.

In Harrow East, Boris beat Ken by 49% to 36%, whereas in 2010 the Tories beat Labour by 45% to 38%.

In both cases, Labour closed the gap between 2008 and 2010, but a similar performance across London in 2012 would see Boris narrowly re-elected. However, the picture is very different if you look at three other marginal constituencies.

In Ealing North, Boris beat Ken by 41% to 39%. In 2010, Steve Pound crushed his Tory opponent 50% to 30%.

In Hammersmith, Boris beat Ken 41% to 40%. In 2010, Andy Slaughter saw off a well funded Tory campaign by 44% to 36%.

In Westminster North, Boris beat Ken by 46% to 38%. But in 2010 Karen Buck beat one of David Cameron's personal friends by 44% to 39%.

Andy Slaughter, Karen Buck and Steve Pound all backed Ken as Labour's candidate for Mayor. If Labour can learn and replicate the secrets of their successful campaigns across London, Ken will be back in City Hall in time for the 2012 Olympics.

Philip Blond vs the centre ground of British politics

The Scotsman reports that:

"DAVID Cameron’s “philosopher king” will be one of the first people to meet the new leader of the Labour Party, The Scotsman has learned.

Philip Blond, whose book Red Tory is credited as the inspiration of the Prime Minister’s Big Society, has been actively wooed by both the Miliband brothers, David and Ed, during their leadership campaigns.

Labour leader tomorrow and will then hold a meeting on Sunday with Mr Blond and members of his Res-Publica think-tank at the earliest opportunity in a bid for Labour to win back the centre ground of politics.

Like Mr Cameron before the election, the Lib Dems and the two leading Labour leadership contenders see Mr Blond's ideas about mutualisation, community ownership and localism as the best way to win the centre ground of politics and change Britain positively as the money in the Treasury runs out.

A source close to Mr Blond told The Scotsman: "He and ResPublica have had several approaches from the two Miliband camps. They know that his ideas are the only ones in town at the moment if you want to reshape things from the centre ground.""


My advice to the next Labour leader is as follows:

If you have political advisers who tells you that Philip Blond represents the centre ground of British politics, then fire them[1].

Instead of spending an hour listening to Philip Blond's drivel, cancel this meeting and use the time more productively by going out canvassing. You will get a far better idea about the real "centre ground of politics" by talking to a totally random selection of people about their ideas and priorities.

There are all kinds of flotsam like Blond gathered around the Westminster Village trying to make a living by persuading powerful people to listen to their daft ideas. One of the ways that the Labour Party needs to change is by ensuring that our leaders spend a lot less time listening to those people, and more time out and about listening to ordinary people who don't hang around in Westminster.

[1] Even as I wrote that, I felt bad about suggesting people who work for the Labour Party should be sacked. Instead of being fired, they should be offered the opportunity of retraining as a local organiser, where they will have the chance to do something useful for the party instead of being actively harmful, and where they can learn something about the actual "centre ground of British politics".

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The world's worst benefit scrounger

There's been a fair amount of coverage of Keith Macdonald, the "Sunderland Sh***er" who has fathered ten (or more) children with ten different women, and "outrage" that this will cost the taxpayer more than £1.5 million.

Matthew Sinclair, director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: ‘This is a disgusting abuse of a benefits system that is supposed to look after those who have genuinely fallen on hard times. It is shocking that someone can be so indifferent to their responsibilities.’

If you believe the newspaper reports, then Macdonald doesn't sound like a particularly nice guy. But if you think about it, he also sounds like the worst "benefit scrounger" ever.

Of the £1.5 million (which is the total amount which will be paid out over 16 years), the amount which will go to Macdonald is £0.

Or, rather, because he is getting £5 per week deducted from his benefits, this turns out to be a benefits scam where he actually loses money.

So 100% of taxpayers' money, plus roughly 7% of Macdonald's benefits, goes to his children and their mothers, to help feed and clothe them, keep a roof over their head and provide the basics which every child in a civilised society needs when growing up. The cost to me as an average taxpayer is something in the order of one penny per year per child, possibly a little less. And I'm meant to find this 'disgusting'.

Macdonald's oldest child is ten years old and the youngest are babies. What actually is disgusting is that, in their desperation to undermine the welfare state so that their wealthy masters get to pay less taxes, the Taxpayer's Alliance and journalists for right-wing newspapers are quite prepared to try to ruin the lives of these young children.

Behind the bluster, spin and outrage, the ultimate aim of these right wing groups is to ensure that the government takes money away from children whose parents committed the unforgivable crime of being poor. That's far more outrageous than anything that Kevin Macdonald has ever done.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A quick history of the Big Society

Every time I read a well meaning Labour activist argue that "Labour needs to move beyond the belief that the state can do everything and develop a response to the Big Society", it makes me sad.

Here is a quick history of events which contributed to the development of the Big Society:

In the 1970s and 1980s, radical/loony lefties set up a wide range of communuity groups to empower people and deliver a wide range of innovative services. The Tories and their Right Wing allies denounced them in the most vicious terms.

Between 1997 and 2010, Labour created space and put in place policies to enable literally thousands of voluntary groups to flourish, with huge new opportunities to deliver services and to improve local neighbourhoods. The Tories ignored this, because they were more interested in banging on about immigrants and tax cuts.

In 2009, a small group of public relations professionals at the top of the Tory Party - none of whom had any experience of voluntary action - announced something called the 'Big Society', a vague, top down initiative which attempted to claim credit for the insight that voluntary groups had a role to play in delivering services and improving communities.

In 2011, thousands of voluntary and community groups will be wiped out by the savage cuts which the Tory government is inflicting on us.

An even shorter history of the Tories and the Big Society:

First they denounced it.
Then they ignored it.
Then they claimed credit for it.
Then they cut it.


That's all very well, the anguished Labour activists might reply, but how to respond?

First of all, don't repeat Tory spin. There isn't anything new about the idea of getting local voluntary groups to deliver services, organise communities and all the rest of it, and it is interesting that the Tories were so out of touch with civil society that they thought that they had come up with a new idea. The person who did more than anyone else over the past thirty years to enable voluntary groups to flourish was Gordon Brown. One of the first acts of the coalition was to axe a scheme which let voluntary groups hire young, unemployed people doing exactly the kinds of jobs which the Big Society aims to create.

Secondly, oppose savage and unnecessary cuts to the voluntary sector. David Cameron said last week that local charities should not face spending cuts, while slashing budgets to local authorities by 30%. If the government really believes in the Big Society, it needs to give voluntary groups time to explore how they could sustain and develop their work with alternative sources of funding - from individual donations to social impact bonds, payment by results and all the rest.

Withdrawing government funding and then expecting groups immediately to be able to find other sources of funding (including some such as social impact bonds which have never actually been proven to work in practice) is totally unrealistic. A much better option would be to continue government funding for voluntary groups at the same levels for a further two years, giving them time to plan and develop alternatives.

Thirdly, support the government when they do the right thing. The review of regulations will probably come up with some sensible ideas, such as reducing overly onerous requirements on Criminal Records Bureau checks for staff and volunteers. Just because Labour did a lot to help voluntary action, there were some things that the last government did wrong.

Lastly, the main problem with the Big Society, despite its rhetoric, is that it is a top down initiative, developed by a few wealthy and powerful people who have little understanding of social action. In its place, we should build up a response from the grassroots. We should start with the knowledge and expertise of the people who work and volunteer in local communities, using this to inform our policies and actions in everything from how to tackle poverty and increase the number of good jobs, to how to provide better quality services, to improving health and living sustainably.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Labour should expel Woolas

Labour MP Phil Woolas is currently on trial in response to accusations that he made and published false statements of fact in relation to the personal character or conduct of his Liberal Democrat opponent at the last election.

I would be quite surprised, based on the evidence provided so far, if Woolas were found guilty in strict legal terms. But even if he manages to escape prosecution, the campaign which he chose to run and the leaflets that he put out were vile and disgusting racist filth.

The Labour Party constitution says that when someone's behaviour is "bringing the Labour Party into disrepute through behaviour that is prejudicial or grossly detrimental to the Party", they should be expelled. You only have to look at the leaflets, or at newspaper headlines like "Ex-minister 'tried to stir racial hate'" to see that Woolas has brought the Labour Party into disrepute.

I hope that once the trial is over, the Labour Party sends a clear and principled anti-racist message by withdrawing the whip from Phil Woolas and expelling him from the party.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Freedom of Information request

Inspired by George Osborne:

Dear Her Majesty's Treasury,

I would like to know:

1. What definition does the Treasury use to determine whether someone has "made the lifestyle choice" to "sit on out-of-work benefits"?

2. Who is responsible for deciding whether or not someone has made the lifestyle choice to sit on out-of-work benefits?

3. How many people are currently "making the lifestyle choice to sit on out-of-work benefits"?

4. How long does the Treasury estimate it will take to ensure that the money will not be there to fund this "lifestyle choice"?

Yours faithfully,

Don Paskini

Privatising welfare wastes money

An absolutely devastating report from the Public Accounts committee should make all political parties rethink their approach to reforming welfare:

"The Pathways to Work programme was launched nationally between 2005 and 2008 to help reduce the number of incapacity benefit claimants through targeted support and an earlier medical assessment. It is delivered by contractors in 60% of districts, with Jobcentre Plus providing the service in the remainder. By March 2010, the programme had cost an estimated £760 million. The numbers on incapacity benefits reduced by 125,000 between 2005 and 2009. Pathways contribution to this reduction has been much more limited than planned...

Private providers have seriously underperformed against their contracts and their success rates worse than Jobcentre Plus even though private contractors work in easier areas with fewer incapacity claimants and higher demand for labour...

Contractors have universally failed by considerable margins to meet their contractual targets for helping claimants who are required to go through Pathways. They have performed worse than Jobcentre Plus areas, although recent improvements have narrowed the difference. Despite being paid £100 million in 2008-09, providers claim not to have made a profit from their contracts. The Department agreed to pay £24 million in service fees early in view of contractor cash flow problems, although we consider the need for this was questionable given the large size of some of the organisations involved. The Department had an objective to build a healthy market, but has failed to develop an adequate understanding of the supply chain. It has not monitored how well prime contractors are sharing rewards and risks with the more than 80 specialist sub-contractors involved, and we have concerns that effective small private and voluntary organisations working in local communities are being asked to take an unfair share of the risk by prime contractors."

Monday, September 06, 2010

Lib Dem MP: why cutting benefits is not regressive

Lib Dem MP John Hemming, with the latest attempts to explain why the Budget was not regressive:

"There are changes which are intended to get shifts in behaviour. These should not affect the disposable income of the households and should not be treated as either progressive or regressive. These also do not apply to all households that live on benefits. "

"Arguing, however, that people should downsize is not in itself regressive...People who fund their own housing move down market when short of funds."

Hemming's argument here is that cutting housing benefit for people on low incomes is "intended to get shifts in behaviour", and that "people should downsize when short of funds". Therefore, he argues that cuts to housing benefit should not be defined as regressive because people can downsize to cheaper properties, and the cuts are intended to change their behaviour by forcing them to get a job.

I thought the people who are in denial about the consequences of the Budget had scraped the barrel with Nick Clegg's arguments that the IFS hadn't taken into account future policies which the government might choose to introduce, or that the Budget was progressive because cutting corporation tax would create loads of new jobs. But the idea that cutting benefits doesn't count as regressive if it is intended to change people's behaviour, and anyway cutting housing benefit is not regressive because poor people can always move to cheaper housing, is a new low.

Here's Patrick Murray, who was a Lib Dem councillor in charge of housing, and who has had personal experience of being homeless, explaining the real consequences of the policies which Hemming is defending:

“The complex arrangements governing the calculation of housing benefit have been changed, leaving many people with less benefit to pay the rent in the private sector homes that councils have placed them in, in an effort to cut expensive temporary accomodation. Many will become homeless as a result.

What happens then? Well, they come back through the council’s doors, and are put in even more expensive temporary accommodation, immediately negating any potential savings from this move…

…The result of the current Coalition policies will be more over-crowding, more misery, and more people sleeping on our streets. And that should not sit easy on the conscience of any Liberal Democrat.”

Friday, September 03, 2010

Ed Balls' Jobs Plan won't work

Ed Balls is calling for "the Right to Work", voa a new guarantee to ensure that anyone unemployed for more than 18 months is given a job or work placement – an extension of Labour’s successful Future Jobs Fund and Young Persons Guarantee. This will mean creating 200,000 jobs and work placements for people out of work for over 18 months.

He's right to consider the question of how we could make sure that anyone who wants one can get a job, but this is the wrong answer, for the following reasons:

1. His sums don't add up.

It cost £1 billion to create 80,000 jobs through the Future Jobs Fund. It is not possible to create two and a half times as many paid jobs for a quarter of the cost. Unless...

2. His "Right to Work" doesn't mean the right to paid work.

The reference to "work placements" means that some of these jobs might be unpaid work experience placements. Giving people the "right" to work for free is a Tory policy, undermines the minimum wage, and doesn't help people into sustainable employment.

3. These jobs won't reach the people who need them most.

This was one of the lessons from the Future Jobs Fund. The Future Jobs Fund was meant to create jobs for people who couldn't find anything else. But in fact, the kind of "Big Society" jobs, usually involving opportunities for training and professional development and often paid at the Living Wage, were better than many of the other jobs on offer to young, unemployed people. So nearly all of them went to graduates and people who had experience of working in the past, rather than people who had never had a job.

In addition, these will have to be very specific sorts of jobs. For example, they will have to be accessible to ex-offenders who couldn't pass a criminal records bureau check. And they would have to be flexible enough for people who have mental health problems and who are able to work on some days, but not on others. Developing jobs which long term unemployed people can do takes more time, effort and resources then Balls has allowed for.

4. He wants to force people to take these jobs, but that won't work.

In true New Labour style, Balls wants to combine "the right to work" with "the responsibility to work", where no one is out of work for more than 18 months. This tough talk may sound appealing, but the consequences are potentially very troubling. For example, thousands of sick and disabled people are currently appealing against decisions by private contractor Atos healthcare that they are "fit for work". Compelling people who are suffering from cancer, or who have severe mental health problems, into these jobs is cruel and counter-productive - they won't be able to cope, it will make them more ill, and it will create extra problems for the employer.


This policy shows the strengths and limitations of Ed Balls. He is definitely asking the right questions, and coming up with new ideas about how government can help people.

But in this case, the weaknesses of the policy come from the fact that it isn't rooted in the reality of people's lives. The attempt to coerce people will be counter-productive, and it takes more resources than Balls realises to guarantee the right to work.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Why I'm voting for David Miliband

I think it is an enormously encouraging sign that the so-called "heir to Blair", "continuity New Labour" candidate for the Labour leadership believes in:

- an economic strategy which aims to halve unemployment
- a living wage
- doubling the bank levy
- a mansion tax on the wealthiest homeowners to reverse housing benefit cuts
- withdrawing charitable status from private schools to pay for an expansion of free school meals
- defending universal benefits
- marriage equality for same sex couples
- a comprehensive strategy to rid the world of nuclear weapons
- training 1,000 future leaders to campaign in their communities
- building more affordable homes and creating more green jobs as part of an industrial strategy to reduce Britain's dependency on the City of London


There are all sorts of ways in which the Labour leadership contest could have turned into a total disaster for the party, but it has been good humoured and actually showed how much common ground there is within the Labour Party. Some disappointments - Andy Burnham has been hopeless on the health service, Ed Balls on immigration and Diane Abbott's campaign has been a bit feeble. Both Ed Balls and Diane Abbott have a lot to contribute to the Labour Party in the future, but I don't think either would be a very good leader.

The analysis of why Labour lost and how the party needs to change has had some odd outcomes. Ed Miliband's argument is that Labour needs to appeal to more working class voters. Yet I think the people who will find him most appealing are more affluent, liberal-minded voters (like the people who form his activist base). In contrast, I can't imagine David Miliband appealing much to the people who supported Tony Blair but don't like Labour, but his Movement for Change is the best initiative of any of the campaigns at increasing the number of working class voters who will go and vote Labour.

I think Ed Miliband is going to win, and his team have run a very good campaign. With less money, less experience and a relatively unsympathetic media, he's managed to articulate the values which most of the electorate share, and (with an assist from his brother's more inept supporters) to portray his main opponent as an out of touch "right wing" candidate, despite the lack of policy differences. At the next election, Labour will face better funded, more experienced opponents who have most of the media backing them, so Ed Miliband's skills in this regard are well worth noting.

But while I think Ed will be an excellent leader, I'm actually going to vote for David. I thought he was an excellent Cabinet Minister, in local government and in education, and I think he's got the skills to be a very different kind of leader from Tony Blair or Gordon Brown - one who will use the talents of people from across the Labour Party rather than just a small clique. As mentioned above, the actual policies that he believes in are very different from those of Blairites such as, um, Tony Blair.

When he is elected leader, Ed Miliband will come under the most terrific pressure from the opposition, media and Blairites over his supposedly radical and left-wing policies. If David were elected leader, the main pressure which he would face would be to win over and enthuse the people who supported his brother or Ed Balls. To unite the Labour Party, Ed Miliband would need to appeal to the Right, David to the Left.

And therefore it is David, not Ed, who would have the best opportunity to change the Labour Party and achieve their and our shared goals - to build a grassroots movement to win the next election, end mass unemployment and close the gap between rich and poor.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

People and things that are more popular than Tony Blair

Reading Tony Blair's analysis about why Labour lost the election, I was reminded of a piece of post-election analysis done by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research:

They asked, amongst other things, the following question:

"I'd like to rate your feelings toward some people and organisations, with one hundred meaning a VERY WARM, FAVOURABLE feeling; zero meaning a VERY COLD, UNFAVOURABLE feeling; and fifty meaning not particularly warm or cold. You can use any number from zero to one hundred, the higher the number the more favourable your feelings are toward that person or organisation. If you have no opinion or never heard of that person or organisation, please say so."

The Labour Party got an average score of 44.8, with 38% positive and 47% negative.

Gordon Brown got an average score of 39.3, 33% positive, 55% negative.

David Miliband got 41.9, 21% positive, 37% negative.

Ed Miliband 39.9, 15% positive, 36% negative.

Ed Balls 35.6, 14% positive, 43% negative.

The European Union scored 41.4, immigration to Britain scored 37.5, Israel scored 38.7, and the Palestinians scored 45.6.

Tony Blair scored 36.2, with 25% positive and 60% negative.

So more people who voted in the 2010 election had negative views of Tony Blair than of Gordon Brown, either Miliband brother, Ed Balls, the European Union, the Labour Party, immigration, Israel or Palestine.