Friday, November 26, 2010

Rewarding failure: more government handouts for Atos

On 23rd November 2010, the Harrington Report into Work Capability Assessment was published. It found 'numerous examples' of 'particularly poor treatment' of claimants by Atos Origin, the private contractor hired by the government to carry out the assessments.

Poor treatment included an impersonal and mechanistic system, reports which are not an accurate reflection of the assessment, lack of training and knowledge of assessors, use of closed questions which did not identify fluctuating medical conditions, and unacceptable behaviour by Atos staff.

For example:

"Evidence presented at a user seminar came from a woman who had expressed suicidal tendencies. At her Atos assessment, she was kept waiting for two hours before being seen. Then during the assessment she was rudely treated by the Atos HCP who at one point told her to “stop crying and hurry up because I need to go and pick up my kids from school.”"

“The interview was very intimidating, and I was reduced to tears of frustration by the end. When I was asked the questions, I was stopped by the assessor from being able to explain and add essential supplementary information. The assessor frequently just held his hand up to stop me from talking and then he moved directly on to the next question.”,

“At the end of my assessment the doctor felt the need to inform me “ME/CFS doesn’t exist in any physical form as there’s no definitive test for it”. When the doctor saw my surprise he soon followed this comment with “there’s a big world out there you know, you should go out and see some of it””

“I’ve sat in on numerous assessments and just found them a joke. Seriously, no eye contact, face buried in the laptop, and… the one that got me was, he (the assessor) said that the claimant had good eye contact, but the doctor never looked at him once. Not once. His face was buried in the laptop.”

“Whatever the content, and outcome, of the interview, it can be conducted in a way which is human and respectful, and leaves the interviewee feeling that they have been treated as a fellow human being. I did not.”

Two days later, on the 25th November, Atos Origin was named as a "preferred supplier" in seven UK regions for delivery of employment support services through the new multi billion pound Work Programme.

Because, after all, who better to get billions of pounds from the government to give personalised support to help people into work than a company which - according to evidence in an official government report - offers impersonal and rushed assessments, inaccurate reports, and which humiliates and bullies sick and disabled people?

How Labour built the "Big Society"

Prime Minister's Questions, July 2010, offered us a clue in the ongoing quest to try to work out what the "Big Society" is all about:

Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): In south Acton, the Acton Community Forum is piloting an extremely good scheme called "Generations Together", which is all about encouraging each generation to pass on its own skill sets to each other; basically, it is about getting the community to help itself. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is an excellent example of what the big society is all about?

The Prime Minister: I agree. I have to say to Labour Members, who sort of sigh every time an hon. Member actually mentions a worthwhile charity, voluntary body or project that is doing something in their communities, that we are going to change the way we do politics in this country. Instead of endlessly talking about the money that goes in, let us talk about the outcomes that come out. I think that that is a better way of doing things.


So "Generations Together" is an excellent example of what the big society is all about. We know this because the Prime Minister said so. Who came up with this wonderful idea?

The Department of Children, Schools and Families. In 2009. As part of the Every Child Matters programme.

"The Generations Together programme is seeking bids from all English LAs with social services / children's service responsibilities to submit expressions of interest, in partnership with third-sector organisations, for funding to develop demonstrator sites of intergenerational practice.

We want LAs to consider how they can utilise the talents of our younger and older people, whether it be for their own benefit or the benefit of the whole community. It is a £5.5m programme which will run during 2009-10 and 2010-11. The closing date for applications is 10 June 2009."

This "excellent example" of the Big Society was an initiative of the Labour government, made possible because central government allocated £5.5 million to fund it.

So when David Cameron says, "let us talk about the outcomes that come out", let's remember that these Big Society outcomes only came out because Labour put the money in. And if you cut funding for the education department so they can't set up these kinds of programmes, and cut the budgets of local authorities so they can't support them, then you end up undermining the Big Society and reducing opportunities for people from different generations to share their knowledge and experience. The outcomes stop coming out.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why won't New Labour claim credit for the Golden Age of civil society?

Patrick Diamond:

"Late 19th century liberals and social democrats gave considerable thought to how the public realm ought to be strengthened. They envisaged a sweep of civic institutions from guilds and friendly societies to mutuals and trade unions that would generate public value, and offer protection from the turmoil of rapid industrial change.

These bodies were not positioned against the state. Over the course of the early 20th century, they were seen as increasingly complimentary to the expansion of government activity. But this insight was steadily emasculated in the second half of the 20th century, with the growth of the post-war welfare state and the enlargement of the public sector at the expense of community organisations."

NCVO "The State and Voluntary Sector"

Between 1997 and 2006, income for charities increased from £17.5 bn to £33.2 bn. 634,000 people work as paid employees for the voluntary sector.


New Labour helped to double the income which charities received. Income for the voluntary sector increased faster than increases in public spending throughout Labour's time in power. Over 600,000 people now work for charities, and hundreds of thousands more volunteer.

This should be a source of massive pride and something to build on and learn from for the future. But instead, even one of the key architects of the policy - someone who was an adviser in Downing Street while this happened - claims that the public sector grew at the expense of community organisations.

For all the talk of the friendly societies, guilds and mutuals, and all the rest which existed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the real Golden Age of civil society was between 2000 and 2010, when it grew at a scale without any precedent in the whole of British history. There were a far wider range of civic institutions, generating more public value, protecting and supporting people, involving more people and with far greater resources in 2009 than at any time between 1850 and 1940.

Instead of lectures about how social democracy needs to go back to the days before the NHS, the architects of this Golden Age should be highlighting the way that under the cover of the "Big Society", the Tory cuts to the welfare state and public sector are threatening thousands of civil society organisations.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Against the bailout

So after claiming there is no alternative to slashing public spending, our government plans to contribute £7 billion towards the bailout of the Irish government/banks.

Since May, we've heard the Tories say that we have to slash public services, make hundreds of thousands of people lose their jobs, and cut benefits for everyone from ex-servicemen to pensioners and carers. They wouldn't even loan money to British businesses to invest in new exports.

But as soon as a corrupt, incompetent right wing government and their partners in crime in the banks need our cash, Cameron and Osborne manage to find £7 billion for them.

I understand the economic case for the bailout, and feel every sympathy for the people in Ireland who didn't gain from the boom and now get to suffer the bust. But if the UK is broke, as the Tories claim, then we can't afford to be part of this bailout. And if the UK can find £7 billion for this, then they've got enough money to stop the most devastating cuts over here.

There might be circumstances in which Labour should support a bailout - things might be different if elections were called and a new government formed (possibly led by the Irish Labour Party) with a mandate to clean up the mess, or if an extra £7 billion was raised from extra bank levies or taxes on bonuses.

But this bailout, given to the exact same people who got Ireland into such a dreadful mess, at the same time as our government makes the same savage cuts which caused catastrophe in Ireland - definitely not.


I see that Very Serious Commentator David Aaronovitch, writing in the Times, advises Labour to avoid the temptation to become a "Tea Party of the Left", to support the government in areas such as mutualism, electoral reform and student fees, while opposing them on the immigration cap.

Similarly, I'm sure that the "centrist" line on the crisis in Ireland is that Labour must support the bailout, while at the same time supporting cuts in welfare spending and public services, because otherwise we will lose "credibility". I think this advice is more or less exactly wrong - only someone as out of touch as a newspaper columnist could believe that it is a sensible political strategy to support the government when it does irrelevant or unpopular things, and oppose it only when it does popular things.

Politically, the bailout is a golden opportunity to take away one of the most potent lines of attack which the Tories have against us. One thing which Labour should learn from the Tea Party is that opposing bank bailouts is fantastically good politics. In the future when the Tories claim they are forced to cut services and demand what our alternative would be, we could start by pointing out that unlike them, we wouldn't have handed over billions to bailout right-wing governments which destroyed their economy with savage cuts in public spending.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How IDS misled parliament about housing benefit cuts

I've said for a while that Iain Duncan Smith and his team at the DWP are weak on the detail of their policies and have a preference for "policy based evidence", ignoring any data which doesn't support their view of how the world should work. I think this is a fatal weakness when it comes to the intricacies of the welfare state, where any changes which haven't been fully analysed and considered have the potential to hurt huge numbers of people.

Here's a great example.

Inside Housing
have been doing some excellent investigations, and found that a key fact which IDS and his Tory and Lib Dem allies quoted to justify their housing benefit policies was inaccurate, based not on the Office of National Statistics (as they claimed), but on a property website owned by Associated Newspapers, and that the real stats demolish the claims of government ministers about the likely effect of housing benefit cuts.

IDS claimed, in parliament:

‘We now know that, according to the Office for National Statistics, the private marketplace in housing - Labour Members are completely wrong about this - fell by around 5% last year. At the same time, LHA rates, which the previous Government had set and left to us, had risen by 3%. There is thus a 7% gap with what is going on in the marketplace.’

Here's the facts, from John Birch at Inside Housing:

"His reference to the ONS puzzled many people as they were unaware that it produced any statistics on private sector rents. And the Department for Work and Pensions has now confirmed to me that the source of the 5% figure was in fact the rental index set up by (now, a website owned by Daily Mail publisher Associated Newspapers.

However, the problem with the figures goes way beyond the issue of what I am sure was IDS inadvertently misleading parliament about their source...

First off, rents for advertised new lettings are not a guide to rents in the market as a whole and especially to the rents of tenants who remain in the same property.

Second, findaproperty records asking rents rather than actual rents in its quarterly survey. Although its methodology adjusts for weightings by region, property type and number of bedrooms, that needs to be borne in mind because asking rents (just like asking prices in the for sale market) tend to be more volatile go up more in booms and down more in busts.

Third, findaproperty appears to cover a different part of the market to the local housing allowance. The average findaproperty rent in March 2010 was £820 a month - almost double the average amount of LHA paid.

Fourth, the comparison fails to consider what’s happened since February 2010. Between March and September 2010, findaproperty’s index rose 3.8% from £820 a month to £851 a month. In June the website’s property analyst Nigel Lewis said: ‘Rents have gone from strength to strength during the first half of 2010. The resurgence of the sales market has left tenants short of options and the result has been increasing rental prices.’

And in September he said: ‘Average rental prices are back up to where they were two years ago and I can only see them going up even more.

‘Stock levels in both the home buyer and rental markets are dwindling, and would-be buyers are still having a hard time getting mortgages. This is all putting increased pressure on the available rental stock which pretty much makes it a landlord’s market at the moment as they can effectively name their price.’

However, if it’s a landlord’s market and landlords are taking advantage of housing benefit, why did the average weekly award for LHA tenants only rise by 0.05% (from £112.85 to £113.43) between February and July 2010?

Fifth, as I blogged on Friday, the DWP’s own stats do not seem to support the view that the LHA somehow distorted the market. LHA awards only rose by a little more than non-LHA private rents in the period quoted by ministers and awards paid to private regulated tenants and housing association tenants both rose by more."


The key thing here is not that IDS is using incorrect stats to mislead Parliament (although he did, and should apologise), and it is not even that his analysis that LHA is distorting the housing market is incorrect (though it is).

It is that the real stats show that landlords have no need to drop their rents if benefits are cut, they can receive the same income by evicting LHA recipients and replacing them with other tenants. And if that is the case, then the government's housing benefit cuts will lead to mass evictions of people who rely on LHA to pay the rent.

Rather than twisting the facts to fit his argument, IDS should adjust his policies to fit the evidence. And in this case, that means avoiding a social catastrophe by dropping the plans to cut Local Housing Allowance.

Monday, November 15, 2010

OECD: spend more on higher education to increase jobs and tax revenues

The OECD have done a report on who participates in education, how much is spent on it and how education systems operate across different countries.

One interesting finding should inform the higher education debate.

At present, the total cost per student of full time higher education is $43,208 for a male student and $32,610 for a female student (including direct costs and also foregone taxes on earnings - the figure for male students is higher because women earn on average 78% of what men earn).

However, the total public benefit from a student is $138,526 per male student, and $114,899 per female student (made up of extra income taxes from higher earnings, "social contribution" and reduced unemployment payments).

So the net present value is $95,818 per male student, and $82,289 per female student. This is higher than the OECD average of $86,404 and $52,436. Further education generates similar value of $73,267 per male and £109,394 per female. The internal rate of return
on higher education is 10.4 and 10.1, and on further education is 13.6 and 22.2.

Therefore, the argument that the state "can't afford" to fund higher education is exactly and totally wrong - this is a money maker, not a money loser and borrowing to spend on higher and further education is a fantastic deal for the taxpayer. To improve the public finances, we should support greater spending on higher and further education, not massive cuts.

Reducing asset inequality

Phillip Blond's Res Publica think tank has a new report out, about different ways of supporting community groups to take over the management and ownership of assets which are currently owned by the state.

The report cites a number of sensible ideas which other people have come up with, such as letting unemployed people work and receive a 'Community Allowance' in addition to their benefits; supporting community groups to be able to use empty shops in deprived areas; and urging local authorities to have a strategy for asset management which gives community groups opportunities to take over the management or ownership of state assets, rather than just selling them all off to balance the books.

There isn't anything particularly new here (which is a good thing - for once Blond has drawn on existing ideas rather than coming up with his own wheezes), so by the usually abysmal standards of Blond's work, it is quite good - though very light on detail. There is, for example, a grand total of one paragraph on the risks involved in transferring assets to community groups, which concludes “there are risks but they can be minimised and managed – there is plenty of experience to draw on. The secret is all parties working together.”

For some weird reason, the press release for this report is all about how this is like selling off council houses and will reduce asset inequality. I guess this is an attempt to interest Tories in a set of technocratic leftie policies designed to make modest improvements to the delivery of public services, but the fact it is being spun in this way suggests that Blond doesn't actually understand his own pamphlet.

In particular, if transferring assets to community groups is meant to be an alternative to privatisation, why not follow the logic of this argument through. There are a wide range of public services which are currently being delivered by private companies which are dependent on money from the state. Rather than asset strip the public sector, why not start by breaking up companies like Capita and Serco and transferring their assets and contracts to local community groups?

Instead of the profits from delivering public services going to wealthy shareholders, thus further increasing asset inequality, these resources could be redirected to local community groups and their members in low income communities. If you want to reduce asset inequality, as these "Red Tories" aim to do, then it will involve taking on vested interests in the private sector, not just attacking the state.

Friday, November 12, 2010

An introduction to Iain Duncan Smith's Magic Pony Scheme

Iain Duncan Smith published the government's new strategy on welfare policy yesterday. This has two basic strands - a Universal Credit which will simplify the benefits system and make people better off in work than on benefit; and sanctions for people who don't want to work.

The Universal Credit is based on the idea that rather than having lots of different benefits, it would be simpler just to roll them into one, thus reducing fraud and error and making it easier for people to claim. It is the welfare equivalent of a Magic Pony Scheme.

Now Iain Duncan Smith is hardly an example of a steely eyed Master of the Detail, and he is being supported by Lord Freud, who is well known for making slapdash errors about welfare policy. So let's look at the Universal Credit policy, and see whether everyone (except the Bad People who are lazy, sinful and workshy) will, in fact, end up with a Magic Pony. I've just picked out a few areas to show the challenges of implementation - administration of the credit, housing costs, council tax and childcare.

On Administration, there is going to be "an IT development of moderate scale" and close working between HMRC and DWP. The past history of these sorts of projects isn't overwhelmingly encouraging, and the potential for things to go wrong is pretty awe inspiring if people's entire benefits are going to rely on the information being correct, all the time. I suggest that this is an area which will repay careful scrutiny over the next few years.

On Housing costs, there are some basic errors of fact in this section, such as the claim that the Budget made "the lowest third of market rents affordable". The aims include simplifying the system, making sure people don't get into arrears or become homeless and rents will be "fair but not excessive".

Since the Universal Credit will be based on the current system, which achieves none of these aims, it would be nice to hear about how any of this will be achieved. It is therefore slightly disquieting to find that there is not a sentence of detail about how this will happen, and the section concedes that "there are many policy and operational issues to work through in respect of housing. The Government will work closely with Local Authorities and the housing sector as plans develop."

At the same time as the government is planning to ensure that every claim for housing support is determined by the Department of Work and Pensions, it has also decided that every single local authority should develop its own criteria for paying council tax benefit. It is hard to see how this sits with the overall aim of simplifying the benefits system.

As the paper says, "There is more work to be done on the practicalities of the new approach and the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions will work closely together with local government and the devolved administrations to develop detailed proposals." Localising council tax benefit is a separate fiasco waiting to happen - more on this next week.

On childcare, the problem is that childcare costs vary considerably, so including childcare in Universal Credit will make it hard to calculate, but excluding childcare would mean that many parents can't afford to work. The government "would welcome views from key stakeholders and will work with them to establish how support for childcare could best be delivered as part of, or alongside, Universal Credit", maybe through vouchers, or earnings disregards, or a self-service process, or who knows what else - because they certainly don't.

How about something more basic? The white paper doesn't even set out how much people will receive in Universal Credit. It will "broadly reflect" some current benefits, offer "an appropriate amount" of support for housing, promises that if people lose out in the transition to Universal Credit then they will be compensated, but doesn't have any numbers to back up the warm words.


There's quite rightly been a lot of debate about the principles of the government's proposals - is their general approach right, what role should sanctions play and so on. But regardless of what you think about these principles, there must be considerable doubt that this Magic Pony scheme is actually going to deliver.

Iain Duncan Smith started work on this six years ago, and has had the full efforts of hundreds of civil servants since May, working out how to turn his ideas into reality. And they still don't know how much people will receive in Universal Credit, how housing costs will be handled, what to do for carers or to cover the cost of childcare - to take but a few examples. While extolling the virtues of simplifying benefits and centralising the administration, they are letting every local council set their own criteria for council tax benefit. And they are betting that their new computer system will be able to calculate real time changes in earnings without making mistakes.

Like everyone else, I hope that these problems can be worked out, and that we end up with Magic Ponies for all - savings billions on reduced fraud and error and spending billions more on helping people in low paid work. But let's stop talking about "welcoming the principles of benefits simplification" and the populist platitudes, and let's start addressing the woeful lack of detail about how this is actually going to work.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tory MP: people on benefits "only" losing £7.50 per week

Aiden Burley, Tory MP for Cannock Chase, speaking in yesterday's debate about Housing Benefit:

"Even according to Shelter's own briefing, the average loss in my constituency will be £30 a month-£7.50 a week. The total number of claimants in Cannock Chase is 10,278. Therefore, one eighth of my constituency-it is a very poor working-class constituency that used to have 52 coal mines-will have to adjust their weekly outgoings by less than a tenner."

Bridget Phillipson, Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South:

"Before I was elected, I managed a refuge for women and children fleeing domestic violence, and the city council supported these homeless families and got them rehoused, often in the private sector. The women would often pay a small top-up to their housing benefit, often to be near supportive family who could help with child care so that they could undertake training or return to the workplace. Such women will be doubly hit, and at the point when they are trying to get their lives back on track."

£7.50 per week probably isn't much for someone whose life experience is private school, Oxford Union, Oxford University Conservative Association, working for an MP and management consultancy. But it is a lot if you are a woman fleeing domestic violence.

It makes me feel sick to read the arrogant, flippant, smug drivel which Tory boys like Aiden Burley use to justify attacks on people who are less fortunate than them.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Rethinking dependency

I spoke at Capita's welfare reform conference a couple of weeks ago, on the subject of "engaging the third sector in back to work programmes". The audience were a mix of people from local councils and private employment providers. Here's an excerpt:

"I’d like to offer a contribution to the conversation that we’ve been having today about the role of the third sector in Back to Work programmes, with a case study and some reflections which I hope will help you with your work.

It comes from our experience of working with small community groups which work with few resources in deprived neighbourhoods, and how we’ve managed to get them involved in supporting people to overcome barriers and get paid work. I guess in policy terms, you could characterise it as an example of where the Work Programme meets the Big Society – although our work predates either.

Our work to date has been fantastically successful – we’ve met and exceeded targets for getting people into work, won awards for partnership working and reached the people who need help most. 40% of the people who have been helped were out of work for more than three years before they got help from the local community groups in our network. And of the eight providers in our network, five had never been involved in providing employment support before – so they’ve developed their capacity to help people into work in the future.

But before I describe how we set up and developed this network, I just wanted to say a word about this notion of “dependency”. We hear government ministers talk about a “dependency culture”, and about “people sitting at home on out of work benefits”. We’ve heard this kind of language for a quarter of a century. I think these attitudes need to be chaned if the Work Programme is going to work.

I work with more than 300 community groups in our locality. The overwhelming majority of these are dependent - indeed are proud to be dependent - on the contribution of volunteers who receive out of work benefits. Their commitment and hard work helps to deliver the services and build the relations which make small community groups so effective at helping people when they need it most.

I think we need to get away from the ideas and values that treat unemployed people as “customers”, or as a kind of “social problem”. Community groups working at the grassroots think of them instead as valued volunteers, friends and neighbours. I believe that one of the great benefits of engaging the third sector in delivering back to work programmes is that it is a way of accessing the skills and talents of the people that our groups depend on and serve.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Why workfare won't work

Some thoughts on the government's new idea that people who are long term unemployed could be placed on four week mandatory placements of thirty hours per week doing jobs like cleaning litter and gardening:

1. It is a job killer.

There are lots of people who work as street cleaners, toilet cleaners, gardeners and other unglamorous and poorly paid jobs. If these policies go ahead, they will lose their jobs. No employer in their right mind would pay £6 or £7 per hour to employ street cleaners if they could get an unemployed person to do it for free.

In my local area, residents nominated one of the council's street cleaners as employee of the year. He's been working for more than thirty years, never taken a sick day and people always see him out and about working hard. But our council's got to make £58 million in cuts over the next three years. So instead of getting paid £7.60 per hour for an honest day's work, he'll end up being made redundant - and presumably in due course get one of these "mandatory work placements" doing his old job but without pay.

2. These plans can punish or help - they can't do both.

Government ministers on the telly today said that these plans were intended to help people get jobs, not to punish them. But they are likely to make it harder for people to get jobs, not easier.

If you are an employer, having to choose between hundreds of employees, and you see an applicant's CV which states that he or she has completed a "mandatory work placement", then you know the following things:

- They haven't worked for a long time.
- They were workshy and so had to be forced to do menial jobs with the threat of losing their benefits.

Armed with this information, 99% of employers would throw their CVs in the bin and move on to the next one.

Now, you could have work placements which help people get the skills and experience to make it more likely that they can get a job. But, um, these already exist.

3. These placements don't give people proper experience of work.

Imagine if you turned up for work, and your boss bullied you every day. Or sacked you for being one minute late. Or you thought that something that you were being asked to do was unsafe, or you felt ill. But you couldn't do anything, because if you complained, or objected, then you could lose your job and have to live on nothing for three months. And even if you do a really good job, you don't get paid.

As currently presented, these placements aren't like giving people an experience of what work is like. They are like what work would be like in a world without any protections or rights for working people.

4. Or is it just a gimmick?

This government has already got form for putting forward "symbolic" policies, ones which don't actually achieve much, but which attract lots of media attention and give the impression that they are doing something popular. Think of the constant announcements cracking down on the same few benefit fraudsters (none of whom ever seem to be affected by successive government crackdowns), or the cap on housing benefit, which is just 3% of their cuts to housing benefit.

It would cost billions of pounds to put everyone who is long term unemployed through a four week placement - money which we know that the DWP doesn't have. So maybe the aim is to get a few pictures for the media of long term unemployed people looking like criminals on community service picking up litter - to send a message about the government's approach and use nudge techniques to modify the behaviour of unemployed people or some such.

If this is just a stunt, then the good news is that it won't do much harm - and it is telling that the government hasn't even talked to any of the councils or charities which it says are going to create these placements. But nor will it do anything substantive to reduce unemployment. When the government publishes their plans, we'll be able to see how much money they have allocated for it, and whether it is any more than a piece of spin.


I can see the case, from the government's point of view, for giving employment advisers the power to require people who have no interest in looking for work to do mandatory placements, as a punishment to catch the people working cash in hand and for those who have a bad attitude when they turn up to the Jobcentre.

If the government wants to do this, then they should drop the rhetoric about how this is going to help people - because it's not meant to do that and it won't, and the fantasy that charities will be involved in providing these placements - because charities won't get involved in punishing people because it is against their charitable objects. They should be honest that it will destroy jobs, and honestly argue their case that this is a price worth paying to punish people who are long term unemployed. If they are inspired by the USA, where millions of people have lost all benefits because they've been out of work for 99 weeks, then they should make the case for why they think we should learn from the Repulican Party. Similarly, if this is a symbolic policy which will affect a few hundred people, then be honest about that.

Or they could change this programme so that it actually helps reduce unemployment. They could require that these placements don't duplicate or replace existing jobs, they could incentivise charities to create innovative and rewarding placements which develop people's skills and encourage them to look for work. They could give people experience of real work - with the same protections and rights as every other worker, and experience of earning a proper wage rather than handouts. And they could extend the placements from four weeks to a longer period of time. Like the Future Jobs Fund. Which they scrapped.

If these mandatory placements are about playing politics, a "wedge issue" to get votes from people who don't like scroungers and want to see them punished, then the victims will be low paid manual workers, who will lose their jobs, and people who are unemployed and want to work, who will live with the fear of being forced into placements which will make it even harder for them to work. If they are genuinely intended to help people get jobs, then they haven't been thought through and need big changes.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Why the Democrats lost on Tuesday

This analysis of why the Democrats lost so heavily on Tuesday, by Drew Westen, is the best piece of commentary on the recent American elections. It was actually written a year ago, but the points and predictions that he made were more than validated. Two excerpts :

[on "winning the centre ground"]

"Obama, like so many Democrats in Congress, has fallen prey to the conventional Democratic strategic wisdom: that the way to win the center is to tack to the center.

But it doesn't work that way.

You want to win the center? Emanate strength. Emanate conviction. Lead like you know where you're going (and hopefully know what you're talking about).

People in the center will follow if you speak to their values, address their ambivalence (because by definition, on a wide range of issues, they're torn between the right and left), and act on what you believe. FDR did it. LBJ did it. Reagan did it. Even George W. Bush did it, although I wish he hadn't.

But you have to believe something.

I don't honestly know what this president believes. But I believe if he doesn't figure it out soon, start enunciating it, and start fighting for it, he's not only going to give American families hungry for security a series of half-loaves where they could have had full ones, but he's going to set back the Democratic Party and the progressive movement by decades, because the average American is coming to believe that what they're seeing right now is "liberalism," and they don't like what they see. I don't, either.

What's they're seeing is weakness, waffling, and wandering through the wilderness without an ideological compass. That's a recipe for going nowhere fast -- but getting there by November."

[on denying illegal immigrants healthcare]

"Good policy? No. Not only is it inhumane -- can you imagine being really sick or in terrible pain but being too afraid even to go to a clinic because you might be deported? -- but it's a public health hazard for sick people not to get care and spread their illnesses, a drain on American taxpayers as illegal immigrants who finally have no choice but to find their way, when they're incredibly ill, to emergency rooms or public clinics, and a despicable policy toward their children, many of whom are American citizens, but who in either case shouldn't have to be sick, in pain, and without preventive care as their bodies and minds are developing, no matter where their parents come from.

Is it good politics? No. During the election I tested messages on just this issue, and a strong progressive message beat the most convincing anti-immigrant message we could throw at it by 10 points. Two weeks ago, I tested messages on just this issue as it applied to health care, and that margin had doubled.

If you just talk sensibly with Americans, they are sensible people. But ask them one-dimensional polling questions like, "Do you think illegal immigrants should get health care?" and you'll entirely miss the art of the possible."