Ed Miliband’s Speech and Social Security Reform

Ed Miliband made a speech today setting out how Labour will cut spending on Social Security. He said “Controlling social security spending and putting decent values at the heart of the system are not conflicting priorities.” Many of the ideas he set out in the speech seem positive but his language suggested that Labour still have some of the mainstream rhetoric at heart. He said that the system does need reform, and I won’t disagree with that, but I differ slightly as to how.

So the four building blocks of a One Nation social security system are: work, rewarding work, investing for the future not paying for failure, and recognising contribution.

For the rewarding work part, Miliband noted that work does not pay enough to live on and that welfare fills that gap, and I applaud his commitment to promote a living wage and to change the law to prevent loopholes that allow reduced wages.

When it comes to investing for the future not paying for failure he said that housing benefit costs are high because there are not enough homes and said that building homes would be a priority, although he did not say who would pay for those homes or mention a rent cap. Nevertheless I applaud the commitment to building homes.

However, I disagree with what he said about recognising contribution. He said that  “people’s faith in social security has been shaken” because “it appears that some people get something for nothing and other people get nothing for something“. The example given was that someone who became unemployed after forty years would receive the same help as someone who became unemployed after two years. I think this is a very poor example given that he was talking about National Insurance, because it is that nature of an insurance system that some people pay in more than others but that everyone gets the same help when they need it. A driver who had a car accident after ten years of driving would not get a better payout than a driver who crashed in their first week. The actual issue which needs addressing here is that Job Seeker’s Allowance is not enough to live on whether a person has worked two years or forty and in fact in the UK our unemployment benefits are much lower as a proportion of income than in many other countries.

It is when Miliband turns to the subject of work that we find some of that scrounger rhetoric still present. Tell-tale phrases such as:

Which leaves hundreds of thousands of people in long-term idleness.

the denial of responsibility by those who could work and don’t do so.

Now just as there is a minority who should be working and don’t want to, there is a majority who are desperate for work and can’t find it.

“Idleness” is a loaded word when Miliband could have referred to unemployment. At least in the last statement he said that it is a minority that does not want to work, but I believe he should have gone further and pointed out just how tiny that minority is rather than fuel the myth. Maybe as Sue Marsh says Labour are improving when it comes to scrounger rhetoric, but they are still using the language of the Tories and the tabloid papers and they have some way to go.

Labour’s big idea to tackle unemployment is a compulsory jobs guarantee. I like the idea of a guaranteed job after a year or two of unemployment. I am not so happy with the emphasis on the compulsory part, which again plays to the scrounger rhetoric. Under Labour’s plan the government would pay for 25 hours a week at minimum wage while the employer would pay for 10 hours of training. There would be a tax on banker’s bonuses which Labour say would fully fund the scheme. I think as solutions to unemployment go, this isn’t a terrible idea, although I have to ask what happens when the funding for these jobs ends. And I am concerned that if the system is not flexible then people may be forced into inappropriate jobs which may not accommodate their circumstances or abilities. I hope that some safeguards to prevent that are written in to the compulsion.

I am more concerned about the plan for parents. Miliband said that since children of 3 and 4 years old get 15 hours a week in nursery education, parents must use that time “to undertake some preparations to help them get ready to go back to work. Attending regular interviews in the Job Centre, undertaking training, finding out what opportunities exist. To be clear, under this policy there would be no requirement to go back to work until their youngest child is 5.

In other words, parents must spend several hours a week for two years going in to the Job Centre to attend pointless interviews which presumably will be farmed out to the likes of A4E, where they will continually re-jig their CV and attend training which may or may not be relevant to work they can get months or years later. This, apparently, is to encourage the ethic of work, because he seems to believe the scrounger rhetoric that says otherwise those parents will never want to return to work.

Disabled people got a mention in the speech too. Unfortunately Miliband reinforced his commitment to the Work Capability Assessment. He did at least concede that the WCA is not working, saying:

But when over 40% of people win their appeals, it tells you the system isn’t working as it should. And too often people’s experience of the tests is degrading. So this test needs to change. It needs reform so that it can really distinguish between different situations. Disabled people who cannot work. Disabled people who need help to get into work. And people who can work without support.

The test should also be properly focused on helping to identify the real skills of each disabled person and the opportunities they could take up. I meet so many disabled people desperate to work but who say that the demand that they work is not accompanied by the support they need. So these tests should be connected to a Work Programme that itself is tested on its ability to get disabled people jobs that work for them.

Miliband did not say how exactly he would change the assessment so that it can accurately distinguish between people who can or can’t work or need help, and I doubt he knows. He didn’t say how he would stop the assessment being degrading. He also made no mention at all of the severe stress caused by continuous reassessment and health implications of that.

The benefit cap, too, got Miliband’s support. He said:

“In 2011, there were 10 cases where £100,000 a year was spent on housing benefit for individual families. That’s 10 too many. And it is one of the reasons why Labour has said we would support a cap on overall benefits. As Ed Balls said on Monday, an independent body should advise government on how best to design this cap to avoid it pushing people into homelssness and costing more.”

Possibly the most stupid policy announced was an overall cap on social security spending for three years. The effort to reduce the spend on social security by attacking unemployment and high rents is great, but there is no predicting how the economy will actually do to the total cost and setting an absolute budget means that should too many people need help then some will go without or everyone will have to get less. That will result in poverty, homelessness and starvation either way.

I don’t want to criticise these ideas without providing an alternative. I want to suggest some ideas of my own which would take into account some things that I think we need to recognise: That capitalism will not focus work where we have need, such as healthcare, social care and building. That even after creating more jobs we cannot go back to full employment because new technology, efficiency savings, automation and outsourcing mean that we will never again need as many workers as we once did. That there are very few people who can work but do not want to, but there are many who want better working conditions or better wages who have a very weak bargaining position. That the benefits system is inefficient, full of errors, and places a huge strain on those subject to it.

Allowing for those facts, then, I would suggest:

  • Build new social housing by investing in housing associations and cap rents to create secure and cheap homes not subject to inflation through private profit.
  • Invest heavily in healthcare and social care to create jobs in areas where we need the services.
  • Introduce a Universal Basic Income (Citizen’s Income) that will provide enough to live on to every single citizen.

I think that housing associations are a much better way to invest in housing than any scheme to encourage private industry to build them. Housing associations become self-financing and take that initial investment to continue creating more homes which are cheap and secure. Rent caps would reign in private landlords who are profiteering from inflated rents, and would also prevent rents from rising in response to universal basic income. Investing in the NHS and social care would both create jobs and improve our healthcare and quality of life to the benefit of all rather than subsidising jobs within private industry for the profit of a few investors.

Universal Basic Income is, I admit, a much more distant proposition because it’s too revolutionary for many people. The concept is this: that every citizen would receive an income sufficient to live on, regardless of means, without asking anything of them in return. They would not be not required to look for work, or to volunteer for a charity, or to do community service, or anything else. It would be unconditional. It would replace the tax allowance on wages because although an employee would pay tax on all income, they would still have their universal basic income. It would replace pensions, Job Seeker’s Allowance and Employment Support Allowance (Incapacity Benefit) as well as most other benefits, in one stroke removing means testing, the work capability assessment, and the stress and stigma of the current system.

Labour People’s Policy Forum

People who read my rant about The Labour Party last week will be surprised to know that yesterday I attended the Labour People’s Policy Forum in Birmingham and put questions to Labour MPs. I won’t be voting Labour any time soon but for all of the past actions and the betrayal of Labour, they are likely to be in power in 2015 and so I jumped at the chance to influence their next manifesto.

Caroline Flint, Maria Eagle and Mary Creagh

I put questions to Caroline Flint, Maria Eagle and Mary Creagh about income security and benefits. I wasn’t particularly thrilled by the answers but I was pleased when Maria Eagle told me that demonising disabled people was the worst thing that the government had done. I also asked them if they would ever consider basic income but the answer was politician-speak for “no”. (It took a few more words than that.)

In another forum Emma Round managed to get a round of applause for suggesting that Labour should apologise for ESA, the work capability assessment and Atos.

Ed Miliband at the People's Policy ForumThe main event of the day was a Q&A session with Ed Miliband. The audience was made up almost entirely of people who were not members of Labour, which I think was a brave decision especially since the first few questions were very angry. It opened with a demand that Labour challenge the Welfare Reform Act, calling it an insult to a developed country and an assault on its people. The second speaker gave a call to protect the NHS, saying “I work in the NHS, I believe in the NHS but next week I won’t BE in the NHS, I’ll work in public health. Come next week everything that we do and across the NHS is going to go out to tender.” These sentiments got applause and agreement from the audience. Questions followed about education, jobs, equality and much more.

Eventually I got to ask the question which had brought me there through the snow and despite the two hours of awful driving conditions and the resulting cost to my health. I asked Ed Miliband to scrap Personal Independence Payments and keep Disability Living Allowance. I’m afraid the answer was as vague and meaningless as I expected, but I am glad that I got to put the question to him in a public forum.

My question to Ed Miliband

Watch the whole Q&A session with Ed Miliband

The show starts about 44 minutes through the video.

uklabour on livestream.com. Broadcast Live Free

A message to the SWP and Labour

People of the Labour Party, and of the Socialist Worker Party, I have a message for you.

Please don’t destroy our opposition to the cuts.

If that seems harsh, it is. But that is what you are doing. I have had several personal testimonies from people that have attended meetings of anti-cuts protesters but have left or are strongly considering leaving the movement because of takeover attempts by the SWP and recruitment efforts by Labour. Some people attest that people actually walked out of meetings because of the actions of the SWP at those meetings.

SWP, you are seen as too hardcore. You seem to want to run every meeting and every protest. You seem to feel that everyone should agree with you on all issues, and you berate anyone that disagrees with you. Your newspaper sellers are seen as so annoying and persistent that Laurie Penny said “It is highly likely that even after a nuclear attack, the only remaining life-forms will be cockroaches and sour-faced vendors of the Socialist Worker.” Not a nice comment to make, but it does show the common perception of the SWP.

In a quick poll that I conducted on twitter @suziruk said “The SWP patronise and undermine students by making it ‘all about them’ rather than allowing individuals to protest for their own reasons. They see themselves as vanguards of the movement but I think they overestimate their relevance to it.” She later added “Actually one thing I’d say is that when I talked to them individually they are mostly nice people in it for the right reasons.”

Commenting on more prominent people in the anti-cuts movement, @millie_epona said “exactly, and people who think they’re more important and can talk down. I feel pushed out of it at the moment they just make me feel like I have no role. Have stopped going to local meetings so now know I am becoming an armchair activist because I didn’t want to join SWP, basically.”

Labour, you have let down too many people. Your last government privatised and sold our country just as much as our current one, and introduced some terrible authoritarian laws. You aren’t trusted any more, and you haven’t earnt back any trust since losing power last year. You are seen to be drifting along with the governments savage cuts with barely any opposition. You are seen as responsible for many of the same problems which are used as an excuse for the cuts by the Conservatives. It is possible that you have changed, probable that you will change, but as you try to recruit people through their opposition against the cuts you simply alienate them from both your party and the cause. The Netroots UK conference held a few weeks ago was criticised because it was (perhaps unfairly) seen as a recruitment drive for Labour. People felt that the message given to them throughout the day was that they should join the Labour party. Other people have since espoused the view that people should join the Labour party, fight to change it, and then fight against cuts.

@seancourt said “I’m annoyed with people who believe that change can only come if we all say nice things to Labour and ‘reform’ it. Joining Labour won’t reform it, they’ll be the same party that they always were. Only by agitating and forming resistance can we really reform politics.”

The trade unions also need to hear this message. Many people think that they have been slow to join in against the cuts because they want to organise the protests themselves, and would rather people joined them than the other way around.

I have great respect for those that choose to work within a party to achieve their aims, but the fact is, most people do not want to join Labour or the SWP, or a trade union. Many disagree with policies of all of those. People share some causes and disagree on others but it should be acceptable to unite on the causes that we agree upon without pressure to accept the rest. Everyone can and should join the anti-cuts fight if they agree with it, regardless of party affiliation and I am not telling anyone otherwise. I am simply asking the SWP to please refrain from taking over meetings and protests, and I am asking Labour and the SWP to stop using the anti-cuts fight as a recruiting ground for their own ends.

Monopolise Resistance? – how Globalise Resistance would hijack revolt

How to deal with the SWP

Broken government: where next?

Millie Kidson asks on her blog where we will go when the coallition government ends. (Suggested reading before you continue here.)

This question has been perplexing me too. I was a member of the Liberal Democrat party for a few years and I had intended not only to get involved in the local party, but also potentially to stand for election at some later date. That isn’t going to happen with the LibDems now. The LibDems were never really a good fit for me anyway, my membership was a compromise since I fit in to that lower left square on the Political Compass that no party except the Greens seem anywhere near.

I dislike the party whip system where legislation is decided strictly on party lines. I dislike having one party in a majority that can force through stupid law after stupid law. What I would like is a parliament where new legislation has to convince a majority of MPs, not a party leader. Basically, I want a hung parliament. Forever. A lot less legislation would make it through but what little did emerge ought to be good because it has won the support of a majority of MPs. Many will argue that this would cripple the government but I don’t think so. I think it would force MPs to come up with decent laws instead of knee jerk reactions.

The ideal situation as far as I am concerned is for Proportional Representation to be brought in and for government to be composed of a variety of different party and independant MPs to produce the situation that I described above. Unfortunately that isn’t going to happen. What we are being offered is AV which is a poor relation to PR, although better than First Past the Post which is what we have at the moment. With AV the makeup of parliament will change slightly, but not that much. I think if the coallition were to fail and an election be held now or even after AV, it would be a straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives. The LibDems have squandered their support and won’t be back for a long time. I couldn’t in a million years bring myself to vote Conservative, so I guess we’re left with Labour or Green.

I think I would quite like to support the Green party, their policies on social responsibility and on spending are quite in line with mine. (See the Political Compass again to see where you stand.) but just like the LibDems in the past, they lack the critical amount of support to give even a possibility of getting into power, and so people stay away from them. The traditional “wasted vote.”

So where can those that want caring social policies, help for those that need it, support from the rich and the big business, go? I predict that the bulk of the anti-cuts movement will never vote Conservative, will never forgive the LibDems, and most will not think that the Greens have a chance, so they won’t have. Most are likely to vote for Labour or not vote at all. I think that’s a shame. We need to fight for full Proportional Representation, and then we need a complete mix up of views in power to provide us with a balanced and rational government.