Thursday, January 31, 2008

Not a very good start

James Purnell gave his first speech since being put in charge of the Department of Work and Pensions earlier this week. It is about the problems of welfare dependency, the need to create a market in welfare services and the fact that tackling social exclusion 'does not fail for lack of resources'. Since in fact the problems are that people want to work but employers don't want to hire them or pay them enough to live on, welfare services have actually been pretty successful in helping people into work, and there aren't enough resources devoted to reducing social exclusion, this is a rather unpromising start.

It is slightly unfair just to call the ideas in Purnell's speech Thatcherite, because while Maggie Thatcher and her advisers used much of the same rhetoric about welfare dependency, the belief that people weren't poor because of a lack of spending on the part of the government, and the ideological faith in creating markets where they had previously been public services, there is an important difference. Thatcher deliberately decided to leave millions of people on out of work benefits to massage the unemployment statistics as part of the plan of trying to smash the trade unions, whereas Purnell and Gordon Brown want to use a mix of carrot and stick to get people to work. Besides, there are other inspirations as well as Thatcher.

Whichever researcher wrote the speech obviously fancies themselves as a bit of a historian. Hence the passage which goes:

"If you’d ever said to William Beveridge that work could be divorced from welfare he would have been astonished. Yet, until this government put the two back together again, that was exactly the cul-de-sac we were in.

For Beveridge, the very notion of welfare was bound up with the idea of independence."

Indeed. William Beveridge was a proponent of forced labour for those who couldn't find work. For all his expertise in social policy, he maintained to the end of his life a number of prejudiced attitudes about people who were not, as he was, comfortably off. Back in the 1940s, of course, there was a Labour Party which was able to make use of Beveridge's good ideas, while rejecting these sorts of poisonous beliefs.

One of the best things that Peter Hain did as Secretary of State was to draw a clear line between the Tories (who now support forcing people to do unpaid work), and Labour who ruled it out. Let's hope that this section of Purnell's speech is not a sign that a u-turn on this is on the way.

Bad arguments for good ideas #2

I'm generally sympathetic to the liberal case against a number of recent government policies. I think ID cards are a stupid idea, as is extending the period of detention without charge to 42 days. I also think that people have human rights which are not conditional on them behaving responsibly, an increasingly unfashionable view. On the other hand, I think that CCTV cameras are helpful, and I don't think that the reason why the Oyster card was introduced was so that the government could spy on where people go.

There is a common lament amongst liberals who are concerned about the threat to civil liberties that their anger is not more widely shared, often followed by lengthy musings that most people are just sheep and blah blah blah. Their ire would be better directed towards the likes of Henry Porter, or today's article by Timothy Garton Ash.

Garton Ash starts with a comparison of Britain now to the Stasi in East Germany, and how the new technology offers opportunities for snooping that the Stasi could only have dreamed of. Britain is a 'dark outrider' amongst liberal democracies, from CCTV cameras to ID cards. The tabloids are responsible for undermining our liberties (bad), then in the next paragraph the Daily Mail is quoted approvingly for saying that these powers are ones which the Stasi would have been proud of. But having introduced this comparison to the Stasi, Garton Ash admits that the comparison is 'hyperbole' and that 'we are nowhere near that'. Which begs the question, why make the comparison?

This is a 'preaching to the converted' kind of article - if you already agree that we are sleepwalking into a police state, then you probably found it stirring stuff, particularly with its call to civil disobedience. This sort of thing no doubt has its place. But what is urgently needed is more nuanced sorts of arguments, ones which could persuade the undecided, people who are ambivalent about the government's arguments about the need for greater security. Political debate on the internet does often tend to promote the outlandish comparison and the most extreme form of the argument on both sides, but isn't liberal argument meant to be about rational and thoughtful persuasion, rather than bluster and hyperbole?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bad arguments for good ideas #1

The idea of a citizens' income - an amount of money paid to every individual, replacing most or all means-tested benefits - is an interesting one. Many supporters claim that it would be simple in application, increase economic efficiency, help reduce poverty and unite our society. I'm not completely convinced (some objections can be found here), but the thinking behind it is an important contribution to discussions about how to ensure that everyone is able to receive an adequate income.

Weirdly, UKIP and some liberatarians have also got interested in the idea of Citizens' Income. The difference is that their arguments are not very good. For example:

"The important point - that many overlook - is that a CI would also be paid to e.g. carers from better off households, stay-at-home parents and non-working spouses (with working spouses), students from better off families etc.

There are about 2 or 3 million of such people. So it's more likely to be better-off people (who tend to vote centre-right) who'd benefit from the CI, NOT existing benefit claimants, who, if they can be bothered to vote at all would normally vote Labour of BNP. And who would receive less in CI that they currently do (else the CI would be unaffordable).

CI is a centre-right idea."

Postcode lotteries

Welsh Lib Dem leader Mike German said a couple of days ago that 'politicians need to feel comfortable with 'postcode lotteries'', as an inevitable consequence of localism.

It's almost too easy, but here are some examples of Mr German's colleagues feeling comfortable with postcode lotteries... Hampshire...

Liz Leffman, Prospective Liberal Democrat MP for Meon Valley, is "deeply concerned" to learn that the 'postcode lottery' for cancer treatment across Britain means that Hampshire patients lose out. Haringey...

'Postcode lottery for recycling in Stroud Green, say Lib Dems' Norwich...

Lib Dems expose STD clinic postcode lottery

...when it comes to services for the elderly...

Elderly face postcode lottery for National Health care Dundee...

Dundee Lib Dems criticise 'Freeview Postcode Lottery'

...amongst dentists...

Postcode lottery for dental care unacceptable - Lamb

... and in York...

Lib Dems slam plans to cap fire service cash

The difference between Mike German and the rest of the Lib Dems quoted above? Mike German is standing down after the elections in May.

Personally, I think we need to end this postcode lottery when it comes to whether or not Lib Dems support postcode lotteries.

Sharing the proceeds of growth

Some good news from the Daily Telegraph today - the number of people who pay the highest rate of income tax has nearly doubled since Labour came to power, from 2 million to 3.7 million.

This is good for those 3.7 million, because they are earning lots of money (at least £39, 825), and good for the rest of us, as their taxes get spent on the NHS, tax credits, winter fuel allowances, salaries for Derek Conway's family and other good things.

But not everyone is happy. Tory Philip Hammond, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, said: "Gordon Brown is using fiscal drag, raising allowances and thresholds by less than the rate of earnings growth to drag more and more people into the top rate of tax," and Roy Maugham, tax partner at UHY Hacker Young, said: "This is a stealth tax that has received very little attention."

If I earned 40 grand a year (or twice that, as Mr Hammond does, or even more, as I imagine Mr Maugham does), I would be rejoicing in my good fortune and spending it on cool stuff, and would have neither time nor inclination to be whining about the tax burden.

This nonsense about 'fiscal drag' got brought up during the fiasco about inheritance tax, where people who were in line to receive massive unearned lump sums of cash got fixated on the idea that they could get a little bit more money (or, if they were from a millionaire family, a lot more money).

I've got a better term for 'fiscal drag', which is a term which rich spin doctors have come up with as part of their constant campaign to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us. I call it 'sharing the proceeds of growth'. Higher earners see their salaries grow, thanks to their own efforts and the hard work of millions of people who earn less than they do from cleaners to nurses, bus drivers to sales assistants, and the amount of money the government has to spend to benefit everyone grows along with it.

Indeed, we could do with a bit more sharing. After all, some people have more to worry about than the fact that they are paying more tax now that they are richer, such as the fact that their income isn't increasing as fast as the cost of essentials like food and fuel.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Faith rooms

I read Harry's Place for the first time in a little while, and came across this article. The writer came across a 'faith room' in the Science Museum, which he believes should be shut down, owing to the conflict between religious belief and science.

I don't think that having a place where people can pray in a museum is the first step on a slippery slope towards a religious-dominated society, and given how little bother it is to have a space set aside for people to be able to worship, it is a good idea for museums and other places which lots of people pass through to do this.

Reading through the comments, this is obviously an issue which causes a baffling amount of anger and vitriol in some people. The temptation is to advise them to get out more, but the danger is that while out and about they will glimpse some other sign of our tolerant and multicultural society which will cause yet more anger. Much better to stay at home and write more about George Galloway or re-read Nick Cohen's book.


There is a lot I like about the new ideas to boost people's skills, and getting companies like MacDonalds to offer skills training which leads to nationally accredited qualifications is a good idea, which will make sure that the skills that its employees learn are more likely to be acknowledged and valued - a good example of this can be seen here.

The idea that the biggest barrier to full employment is a lack of skills, rather than a lack of jobs or any other barriers, is, however, misleading. Consider, for example:

*Four out of five lone parents have been in work at some point in the last three years. But only 57% are currently employed. So for more than 1 in 5 lone parents, the problem is not getting a job, but keeping it. It's hard to see how improving their skills could help with that. Most leave their jobs because they can't combine it with looking after their kids.

*Most new jobs aren't, in fact, high paid ones using technical computer skills (though there are more of them than ever before, and by 2020 it is estimated that 21% of all jobs will be high skilled). The really big growth has been in low paid jobs such as cleaners, childcare workers, nursery nurses, teaching assistants and care assistants, and this is set to continue up until the point where the Tories win an election, slash public spending and bring back mass unemployment. This produces what Jon Cruddas calls the 'hour glass economy' - lots of new high paid jobs, lots of new low paid jobs, with a squeeze on the ones in the middle. There is definitely a role for increased investment in skills and qualifications particularly amongst people working with children - this works very well in Scandinavia. But it isn't currently a lack of skills preventing people from getting these jobs.

*In Wales, there are more families living in poverty where at least one member of the family is working than in workless households. The other half of the social contract should be that greater skills mean higher wages, but wages aren't high enough for millions of workers to keep them out of poverty. Indeed, a greater supply of skilled workers has kept wage increases down, as employers have been able to pay wages which support a single person sharing a room with three others, rather than a wage high enough for someone who has a family to look after.

It is beneficial for people to be able to develop their skills, and in so far as these reforms help to make that possible, they are all to the good. But they need to go alongside opportunities to work flexibly - being able to combine work with caring responsibilities (and get childcare and respite care when it is needed) and higher wages for low paid workers, with employers competing for the best qualified workers, rather than the cheapest.

By focusing on only the responsibilities of individuals to make themselves appealing to employers, Brown risks alienating the very people whose participation is key to making this work. Unless he gets the strong support of unskilled workers at the next election by showing that he understands and values their experience of what is needed to make it possible to find work, it will be Brown and his colleagues looking for a bit of skills training as they have to find new jobs. Employers and government have a bigger role to play in tackling unemployment than just making it easier to acquire diplomas.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Ideologically neutral

James Purnell is quoted today in the Observer as saying about reforms to get people into work that "Progressives want to make the world a better place. If people can do that using the private sector, the public sector or the voluntary, why not? We are ideologically neutral between all three; we want to use all three."

This is his justification for taking up recommendations from the Freud Review about giving contracts to private companies to get the long term unemployed back into work. I heard David Freud, the author of the report, speak recently, and his priority was less about the benefits of his approach to unemployed people, and more about the importance of creating 'a market in this sector', not just in Britain, but giving providers the chance to 'compete effectively in the growing international market for this sort of contract'.

Far from being an ideologically neutral report focused on the needs of the unemployed, Freud's main interest is in opening up new opportunities for private and large not for profit contractors to receive handouts from our government and others. Less 'Welfare to Work', in other words, than welfare for corporations. Nothing 'ideologically neutral' about it at all.

The private and voluntary sector can help people into work, and add something which the public sector hasn't been able to. I've spoken to people who found work thanks to support from Reed in Partnership and had nothing but praise for them and bad words for Jobcentre Plus. But the key to successful involvement of the private and voluntary sector is that the way that they are involved is based on the needs of the people who will use their services, not whatever their lobbyists suggest would be most congenial for them and allow them to win contracts in other countries.

One test of who really benefits from these reforms will be whether there is any oversight. The experience from the USA and Australia is that private and voluntary sector providers make lots of mistakes when first awarded the contracts. Clearly it will be in their interest and that of the government to avoid scrutiny of any mistakes here right from the beginning, and to claim that everything has got better. One way of making sure that this doesn't happen would be to set up independent regulation, to help protect people who would otherwise find their benefits cut off or forced into totally unsuitable work (e.g. parents forced to take work and leave their children alone at home).

So will James Purnell make sure that this kind of regulation is put in place, to give the new system the best chance of being successful, however irksome it might be for the contractors to have their mistakes scrutinised and challenged? Let's hope he remembers who helped him get his job - people who've suffered from unemployment and look to Labour to be on their side.

The best election story this weekend

Today's exciting election comes not from South Carolina, but from Germany.

Roland Koch is the governor of Hessen in central Germany. He is a right-wing Christian Democrat who has been campaigning for re-election on the themes of crime and immigration, calling for the deportation of foreign criminals. In the past, his other campaigns include opposition to dual citizenships for people who were born in Turkey and work in Germany, and the need to ban burkhas in schools (no one in Hessen has actually seen anyone wearing a burkha, but, y'know, just in case). He is one of the top Christian Democrats in the national party.

He is being challenged by Andrea Ypsilanti, a left-wing Social Democrat, whose main campaign themes are education reform, a minimum wage, and increasing renewable energy. In response to Koch's attempts to link crime and immigration, the SPD hit back, pointing out that he had cut the numbers of police and that he had been silent about racist attacks by members of far right groups. (Koch, in turn, has been making great play in his campaign literature of the fact that Ypsilanti and the leader of the local Greens both have foreign names).

Elections were held today, and have seen a 10% swing from CDU to SPD. In 2003 Koch won 49% of the vote, today's exit polls suggest that the SPD and Greens will get about 45%, the same as the CDU and FDP (liberals). As recently as a month ago, the CDU were 16% ahead of the SPD in the opinion polls.

The spanner in the works is that the German Left Party (an alliance of the old East German communists and West German lefties) are on the verge of securing the 5% that they need to be represented in the state parliament. They won't join in a coalition with the SPD and the Greens, so either there will have to be a coalition between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats or new elections (the liberal party is mainly interested in reducing regulation, privatisation and cutting taxes, and has already ruled out working with the local Social Democrats). If, say, 1 in 5 of the people who voted for the Left Party had instead voted SPD or Green, then Ypsilanti would definitely have a majority, and the state would be run by someone whose priorities were education, the environment, and higher wages for low-paid workers, rather than stirring up hatred against foreigners.

Lots of lessons for lefties in Germany from all of this, but also things for us in Britain to think about as well. There's probably more to learn from Andrea Ypsilanti than from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama combined.

More coverage here (latest polls) and here (background analysis).

Good Old Boy #46

While Barack Obama was giving his victory speech, there was a good old boy standing behind him who was wearing a hoodie, cheering along and waving a homemade sign on which was written 'Veterans for Obama'.

I also liked the story of the elderly woman who sent a campaign contribution of $3.01 and a verse of scripture (I bet Peter Hain wishes with hindsight that he'd got that sort of donation).

Also good is this, from the local South Carolina newspaper:

"Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton so badly in South Carolina it may spawn some new kind of Southern colloquialism. When Clemson spanks an opponent by five touchdowns it will be called an Obama. Fans will taunt the losing team as they walk off the field by making an "O" against their foreheads."

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Peter Hain and the DWP

Peter Hain's resignation is a rather sad story, managing to spend enormous sums of money on a startlingly ineffective bid for a non-job, getting into debt and breaking the law in getting his debts paid off, and now being investigated by the police. Over the past five years (at least), Hain has consistently done the exact opposite of what he should have done, starting with his failure to resign from the Cabinet over Iraq (he'd be Deputy Leader now without having had to spend a penny if he'd done that).

But there's a much more interesting story than that of Peter Hain's career here. That's the story of his Department, the Department of Work and Pensions. Peter Hain was the fifth Secretary of State for Work and Pensions since August 2004, and the shift in that department over this time has been quite remarkable.

Between 1999 and 2004, the DWP had a number of considerable achievements. As the economy grew, it was the department responsible for making sure that it wasn't just the rich who benefited. And over these five years, poverty in the UK fell for the longest consecutive period
since records began. Unemployment fell steadily, but it wasn't just people in work who were better off. Child poverty fell by nearly a quarter, and the drop in pensioner poverty was such that for the first time ever the risk of poverty was lower for people over 65 than for the general population. Along with the NHS, all of this was the best example of how Big Government with big spending increases could be both popular and effective. At the 2005 election, support from the people who worked all their lives, and were now better off than they had ever been thanks to the Pension Credit, or who were better off in work and able to give their children a decent start in life thanks to tax credits, were a major part of the coalition which returned Labour to power.

Of course, not all was rosy, and much more needed to be done (and, perhaps, could have been done before 2004). More action was needed to meet the government's own targets in reducing child poverty. Single adults on benefits were worse off in real terms than when Maggie Thatcher was Prime Minister. The tax credits system needed sorting out. The DWP's services didn't always work as effectively as they could in order to help people find work. And so on. But there was a strong record of achievement to build on.

Over the past three and a half years, the story has been rather different. The DWP has seen its budget cut, and large job losses. Child poverty and unemployment has stopped falling. Ministers hired a banker who lost money on the Eurotunnel to advise them on welfare reform, and are now trying to set up a new system to get people to take a job or face sanctions. The basis of this system is that the supply of jobs will continue to grow indefinitely, and it is being introduced just as the world faces a sharp decline in economic growth. A belief in the ability of the people working for the DWP has been replaced with a blind faith in the miraculous ability of the private sector to solve the problems which government feels that it cannot.

Peter Hain and Gordon Brown had a chance to build on what had worked and address three years of failure when they took over their respective new jobs in the summer. Instead, scarce resources which could have transformed the lives of families living in poverty went on inheritance tax cuts and Hain threw his efforts into trying to force lone parents with young children back to work (though, to be fair, he did also make successful efforts on behalf of Remploy workers and people who lost their occupational pensions due to employer insolvency). Much more so than the dodgy funding, this is the real tragedy of Peter Hain's last ministerial job, that for all of his political convictions and lifelong efforts for a more socially just society, he ended up presiding over a gigantic missed opportunity.

I know nothing about James Purnell (all these middle aged Labour 'rising stars' look the same to me - and he's by no means the worst possible choice as a successor, it could have been Frank Field), but if the Prime Minister wants the DWP to stop being a disaster zone and play its part in getting him re-elected as it did for his predecessor, then the current set of policies just won't work.

He could start by increasing Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit. Not only would this put more money in the pockets of families likely to be hard hit by any slowdown in the economy, it would lift a million children out of poverty. And it would be true to the very best traditions of what he achieved back when the DWP was redistributing wealth and the Chancellor was the most popular politican in Britain.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Red Ken and the trots

With the current selection of right-wing newspapers queueing up to attack him it must be just like the 1980's for Ken Livingstone, though the quality of the accusations (he drinks whisky! he talks to muslims! he works with evil communist dictators to make it cheap for scroungers to get the bus! he pays people money to work for him and give him advice! he uses oyster cards to track our every movement!) make it clear that it is most definitely a case of 'this time as farce'.

The very silliest accusation of the lot (just beating out the Evening Standard's survey, not of a sample of Londoners, but of 'influential people') is the one about the idea that there are a sinister group of Trotskyist infiltrators running London. There are some highly paid, and from all accounts well qualified, bureaucrats in senior jobs in the GLA, sure, and many of them are members of Socialist Action, but you would have to be terminally dim and/or the editor of the New Statesman to confuse these with proper Trotskyists, whatever they choose to call themselves in between working with the City of London to get capitalists to invest in London.

By way of explanation, here is a proper Trotskyist analysis of Ken Livingstone's career. For proper Trotskyists, Ken Livingstone has been a sell out for many, many years, even as the misguided majority called him 'Red Ken'. He broke with the 'class struggle left' in 1981 and from 1982 pioneered 'Rainbow Coalition politics' 'as advocated by the right-wing Stalinists in Marxism Today'. By 1986 he was supporting the right-wing candidate in the NUS, and by 1987 he is being selected as an MP with the support of the right wing (the left, apparently, supported Diane Abbott, so well done them). His campaign in 2000 was a right-wing media-based one, and as Mayor he has been a scab and opposed the anti-globalisation protesters.

The one good thing that all of this nonsense and shrieking from all sides can do is to end any complacency that Ken will win again without any trouble. Even the Tories are reluctant to make the argument that Boris Johnson would be a brilliant mayor (the line appears to be 'yes we know Boris wouldn't be able to do the job, but at least we would have got rid of that evil communist who makes us pay for driving our cars'). I take it as self-evident that anyone who is actually interested in what happens to people in London, particularly those who aren't part of the wealthy elite, will want to help make sure that Ken Livingstone gets re-elected. If so, you can sign up at

Monday, January 07, 2008

Sick Tories

The Tories have kicked off the next round of 'bash the poor' with their new proposals on incapacity benefit. Their minister has an article in the Daily Telegraph, here, explaining it. His argument goes like this:

The minister met someone who talked to someone else who said that someone else was claiming Incapacity Benefit when they shouldn't (or possibly should, the anecdote isn't clear) have been entitled to. They think that there are 200,000 people (about 6% of the total) who are claiming but shouldn't be - this figure is 'based on the experience of other countries'. So they are going to spend lots of money on re-testing everyone, possibly with the same people who assessed the claimants before, possibly by hiring a whole load of new people.

So a policy based on an anecdote, to hit a target plucked out of thin air, which will cause a lot of worry and hurt to millions of people. There can hardly be anyone who could believe that these officials will have a 100% success rate in correct assessment of who should be entitled to benefit and who shouldn't. This means that thousands of sick and disabled people will find their already meagre income cut by a quarter to hit these arbitrary targets.

This, by the way, is what they actually mean by 'compassionate Conservatism'.

Labour's response has been pathetic (though I guess it's worth being grateful that this is one policy they haven't adopted). Gordon Brown said that, "We have set down our proposals. They are proposals that are detailed to deal with both the flow on to IB and the stock." (You wouldn't have realised he was talking about actual people). Peter Hain's been arguing that Labour will manage the problem more efficiently and that the Tory proposals are expensive and unfunded. It's been left to charities like Mind to make the point that there is already a shortage of people who are qualified to assess mental health problems.

Even after all these years of newspaper stories every day about people fiddling Incapacity Benefit, and no major party challenging the consensus where claimants are abused as 'scroungers', 'workshy', 'cheats', the Tory proposals themselves assume that over 90% of people are genuine claimants, and either need the benefit, or need expensive help and support to be able to work.

On the Daily Telegraph's own website, there was a strong negative reaction to the proposals. Gordon Brown can talk about his vision and leadership all he wants, but here is a perfect opportunity to set out an alternative moral vision - standing up for people who can't work because they are sick, showing how the Tory plans are based on prejudice and lies and tackling the real problems. And instead he talks about the IB flow and stock, as if it were an argument between two middle managers about how to solve a technical problem.

Friday, January 04, 2008


Things that you need to know about Mike Huckabee, here.

His best one liner explains both why he won in Iowa and why he won't win the nomination, "I think it's important to know that a lot of people are supporting me because they feel like that I'm the kind of guy that they go to work with instead of the guy that laid them off from their job."

One of Huckabee's great skills, one which very few politicians have, is his ability to sum up in one sentence the difference between him and his opponent (former CEO Mitt Romney, whose campaign events involved PowerPoint presentations). But sadly for Huckabee, the Republican Party isn't decided by the people who go to work, but by their bosses.

As for the Democrats, Barack Obama is just amazing. Not sure whether he would make a better President than Clinton or Edwards, but as a campaigner he is in a different league. He won for all the right reasons - because he was best at raising money from thousands of small donors, because he was able to organise more people in Iowa to spend an evening taking part in political activity than ever before, and because he was able to inspire people with hope for a better future.