Investing in social security works

This Saturday Labour members will come together at Birkbeck College to discuss how Labour can offer an investment based alternative to the Government’s failed austerity agenda.

One of the key debates will be over how to embolden the front-bench to stand up to the coalition’s smears and ensure that future Labour Government invests in a social security system which supports the most vulnerable and eradicates poverty. As on immigration, social security is an issue where the Labour leadership has been reluctant to talk about its record in government but a proper assessment of the facts point to how it can turn its perceived weakness into a genuine strength.

In recent weeks Ian Duncan Smith has taken to calling Labour ‘the welfare party’. As a label it hasn’t stuck but for many the argument behind it has, namely that Labour spent too much on social security during it’s time in Government. Unfortunately Labour frontbenchers have been all too willing to accept this narrative. Comments by Liam Byrne, while still shadow Minister for Work and Pensions, that a future Labour Government would not ‘restore the status quo’ and by his successor Rachel Reeves about being tougher than the Tories on benefits legitimise Tory arguments that the social security bill is too high.

No-one would argue that a Labour Government shouldn’t look to deliver value for money for the taxpayer on social security but the truth is this is exactly what the last Labour Government did. Yes, spending increased but measures such as the expansion of tax credits and allowing the Disability Living Allowance and Independent Living Fund budgets to meet the needs of disabled people, helped significantly reduce poverty during Labour’s thirteen years in Government. Investment in social security worked. In 1997/98 28% of the population lived in absolute poverty in the United Kingdom by the end of Labour’s time in office this had almost been cut in half to around 15%. 2.3 million children and 2 million pensioners were lifted out of poverty in this time. Most impressively after progress in reducing poverty stalled between 2004 and 2008 Labour investment ensured that even during the recession the numbers living in absolute poverty fell again by 1.1 million. This is one of the Brown Government’s finest achievements and one which is not talked about nearly enough.

Simply championing Labour’s achievements would do little to convince voters if it did not contrast very sharply with their experience under the coalition. Since 2009/10 poverty has been on the rise again. Absolute poverty has increased by 1.4 million including 300,000 children and 200,000 pensioners. 340,000 people now rely on foodbanks as a source of food. Real-term cuts to benefits such as the work-related activity element of Employment and Support Allowance and the introduction of punitive measures such as the bedroom tax and benefits cap have mean the situation is likely to get worse by 2015. If Ian Duncan Smith wants to stoop to childish name-calling then the Poverty Party would seem a pretty accurate label for the Tories at the moment.

Labour therefore shouldn’t be ashamed of its record on social security while in Government and shouldn’t engage in the Tories’ ‘who can be toughest’ competition. Instead it can campaign on one very clear message on social security. Absolute poverty has increased under the Tories. Labour will reduce it.

Put an end to apologies for immigration

‘No Irish, No Dogs, No Blacks’ read the signs about 40 years ago, unfortunately the recent BBC Inside Out investigation seems to have taken us back in time revealing that such shocking levels of discrimination still exists.
The BBC undercover investigation found that estate agents in west London were prepared to discriminate against African Caribbean communities.  This should, theoretically, be illegal under the 2010 Equality act which says it is against the law for a business not to provide a service based on ethnicity.  However, despite saying that they could not openly discriminate the agents made it clear that there were ways around these rules – either by pretending that the property had already been let or by failing to get back to prospective tenants.
Housing Minister, Don Foster, reacted with horror saying ‘racism and discrimination has no place in London’. What the Minister failed to acknowledge was the role which the actions of politicians have on creating a climate in which such appalling racism can take place unchallenged for so long.  This Government bears particular responsibility with both its actions and words. The Home Secretary has talked of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants and backed this up with the appalling ‘Go Home’ vans, hardly the language of an inclusive society. Worse still, the Immigration Bill going through Parliament will compel landlords to check the immigration status of potential tenants, almost incentivising the activities exposed by the BBC’s Inside Out.
Although concerns have been expressed by some that previous speeches by Ed Miliband on immigration were ceding ground to UKIP and the far right in recent times Labour have moved in the right direction. Front bench spokespeople queued up to publically condemn the ‘Go Home’ vans and following the screening of Inside Out Communities Secretary, Hilary Benn, wrote to the Equality and Human Rights Commission asking them to ‘launch an immediate investigation into what had been uncovered’.
Unfortunately, despite excellent speeches in the House of Commons by David Lammy, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell in the Immigration Bill debates the decision of the front bench to abstain at 2nd Reading shows the party still has some way to go.
If we’re serious about fighting discrimination and racism we have to move away from apologies and abstentions and fight for a society ready to emphasise the positives of an inclusive multicultural society and which enjoys the benefits it brings.

Challenging the post-Thatcher consensus

“When are you bringing back socialism?” “That’s what we are doing, Sir.”

It was a throwaway comment in a question and answer session on a Brighton street that has come to dominate the press narrative about Labour’s leader since last week’s conference that has grown increasingly hysterical as the days have gone on.

Of course, Ed Miliband is not “bringing back socialism”. I’m not sure of the time when we had socialism from which he is now supposed to resurrect it, but Labour’s policy announcements to date are at best very mild social democracy. The party first officially called itself “democratic socialist” under Tony Blair and senior figures often refer to themselves as socialist (last week, Ed Balls opted for socialism over capitalism in a Daily Politics poll) without it actually meaning anything tangible.

The truth about Ed Milband’s energy price freeze and commitment to policies like full employment is not that they are socialist but that they challenge, if only at the edges, the post-Thatcher economic consensus which says that the state is powerless to act on living standards, jobs and growth. This received wisdom can be seen in Osborne’s new “help to work” programme which instead of the state creating jobs and getting people off benefits, keeps people on the dole and forces them to do work for free.

What frightens the press, and the vested interests they speak for, is that Miliband might win. So that’s why we’ve seen the Mail plastering their frontpages with claims that Ed is taking us back to the 70s, the Telegraph comparing Labour’s housing policy to Stalinism and the ‘Red Ed’ label re-emerge.

Unsurprisingly, the Mail has dabbled in its tried and tested tactics, going to great lengths to point out Ed is the son of immigrant Jews, and worse still had a Marxist Dad. I can’t speak for Ralph Miliband but I suspect he would not regard a cap on gas bills while ensuring the energy sector functions as a “dynamic market” to be an “ultimate tribute”. According to the paper, Ed chose to honor his father by running for the leadership of a party Ralph devoted an entire book to calling useless.

In that book, Miliband Snr said Labour’s problem was that it was more wedded to the parliamentary system then it was to socialism and in the response to his son’s recent announcements we can see the tensions between the two. When ever Labour, or other parties across the world, have tampered with the status quo, and challenged the vested interests who benefit from it, those interests have never hesitated in taking extra-parliamentary action; destablising the economy, engineering commodity shortages and using the press to influence public opinion against elected politicians.

True to form vested interest has unleashed exactly these threats. An investment strike, blackouts, price hikes and a barrage of press smears. They will of course throw millions at the Tory election machine in the coming 19 months, but should this fail you shouldn’t expect them to respect the wishes of a democratically elected government.

Far from the ‘parliamentary socialism’ his Dad lamented as a failure, Ed’s programme, at its most ambitious, is a ‘parliamentary social democracy’, and, for some, even that is too much to stomach. The hyperbolic reaction shows just how embedded post-Thatcher economics are and how powerful vested interests have become. Ed isn’t on the road to socialism, but he’s in for a bumpy ride nonetheless.