Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Why redistribute?

Labour leaders, from Atlee to Blair, have all favoured a form of income redistribution as a means of building a fairer society.

While the Labour leaders of old were more open - sometimes infamously so - about redistribution, New Labour was much less candid, favouring a controversial strategy of redistribution by stealth.

Although the New Labour approach was quite successful in boosting incomes at the bottom, its problem was its inherent deviousness. You can’t win an argument on fairness if you don’t allow the public to debate in the first place.

Moreover, there has always been a deeper problem with Labour’s commitment to redistribution, linked to the perceived purpose of what redistributing aims to achieve. In striving for a straightforward, linear redistribution from the pockets of rich to the pockets of the poor, there appears to a somewhat uninspiring moral vision.

And here’s why I think this is: redistribution, argued for in the name of fairness, tacitly accepts the nature of the society we find ourselves in. In other words, it is silent on the type of society which should be built and what a good society might look like. Progressives thus tend to agree with conservatives about the nature of how we live; we simply believe that some people should have more money to spend than others, as a matter of fairness and greater freedom.

However, when it adopts this approach, Labour ceases to articulate a vision of the society it wants to build. Redistribution fails to be an architectural tool to build a different society, instead it is a mechanical process, tinkering with what exists, rather than seeking to transform it altogether.

This is not an argument for abandoning redistribution as a policy aim. Rather, it is rethinking why we want to redistribute at all. Do we want to redistribute to correct for market unfairness, as Labour has argued in the past? Or, do we want to redistribute because inequality is damaging in another way, in how it estranges people from each other and makes us lead increasingly separate lives?

So while Old, New and Blue Labour would all support redistribution to build a more equal society, the policy consequences of a blue, communitarian programme would be qualitatively different. In the past, the social democratic understanding of the purpose of redistribution led to policies of a slight tax increase here, more tax credits there and perhaps a change in how we uprate benefits.

However, the aim of altering income distribution, and leaving it at that, ignores the real fallouts from a neo-liberal, Conservative society: individualism, decrepit community life, urban homogenization, the ascendancy of market morals and civic discord. While a fairer tax-benefit system is a noble endeavour, it does not address these problems on its own.

So if Labour wants to be Robin Hood, it should no longer simply seek to take from the rich and give to the poor. Yes, we should continue to argue that it is right to take from the rich, but instead propose to use the bounty in a different way. Rather than tampering with the tax system, we should offer a bolder claim on redistribution. As the philosopher Michael Sandel says, we should use redistribution for a:

"Consequential investment in an infrastructure for civic renewal: public schools to which rich and poor alike would want to send their children; public transportation systems reliable enough to attract upscale commuters; and public health clinics, playgrounds, parks, recreation centres, libraries and museums that would draw people out of their gated communities and into the common spaces of a shared democratic citizenship.”

So there it is. Redistribution to invest in the institutions which would build a shared, cohesive society with stronger relationships and better communities. I think most of us would agree that this offers a more convincing and powerful rationale for redistributing wealth than the arguments which the left has become accustomed to - and has espoused - for far too long.

Friday, 20 May 2011

For whose benefit?

Another day, another report about how benefit claimants are idle and need forcing into work. This time it's from right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange. The official report hasn't even been released yet, but the main findings have already been leaked to the press: benefit claimants hardly spend any time looking for work; most think it's fine to reject work; we need harsher sanctions to get these people off their backsides.

Reports like this are ten-a-penny these days, as the British right-wing are sure they're on to a winner in benefit bashing. The Coalition's punitive stance on social security thus poses problems for the Left. First, the policy agenda is largely a continuation of New Labour's stance (though I would argue Labour offered a more holistic agenda). If Ed Miliband changes track on welfare, he risks looking extremely opportunistic. Second, it is an immeasurably popular agenda with the public. Defending 'scroungers' doesn't seem like a good idea; Labour understands that if they are seen to be on the side of benefit claimants, they risk looking like the 'party of the poor' once again.

Yet, Labour should oppose the Coalition on welfare reform. However easy it might be to accept welfare as an area of reform Labour is comfortable with, both the rhetoric and the policy are fundamentally flawed, for three reasons:

1. Workfare doesn't work. One policy recommendation from Policy Exchange is that benefit claimants should be forced to undertake unpaid work while claiming benefit. However, since mandatory work became all the rage in neo-liberal America, countless evaluations and academic studies have found it to be wholly ineffective.

This is summarised by no other than the DWP in a 2008 report. In the report, the authors argue that "there is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work" and that "workfare is least effective for individuals with multiple barriers to work". Given that the Coalition is transferring hundreds of thousands of people from Incapacity Benefit to JSA, most of whom we can hypothesise have 'multiple barriers to work', is workfare really the best policy?

2. Welfare reform ignores the causes of unemployment. In the Policy Exchange report, they implicitly argue that unemployment is caused by the behaviour of benefit claimants: they don't spend long enough looking for work and are happy to reject work in favour of benefits. For an organisation which purportedly prides itself on economic nous, behavioural explanations of unemployment are woefully superficial and cavalier.

Most serious analysts would attribute unemployment to structural, socio-economic factors: lack of adequate/suitable jobs, poor skills, local and geographical characteristics, ill health. We didn't have full employment in post-war Britain because people behaved in a more motivated way. As such, simply getting people to spend more time looking for work is profoundly unlikely to have much of an effect. You can look all day for the gold at the end of the rainbow, it doesn't mean you'll find it.

3. Punitive policies and rhetoric corrode social solidarity. In an article I wrote for the blog Inequalities, I showed how over a decade of welfare reform had corroded support and sympathy for the unemployed. Believe it or not, before 1997 most people in the UK thought benefits for the unemployed were too low and needed to be higher. They also believed that unemployment was caused by injustice. Now, big majorities think benefits are too high and those who claim them do so out of laziness and lack of willpower. There is a deep, moral issue here for Labour: most of us want to live in a society where people stand side-by-side with those more disadvantaged than them, not look down and spit.

These are the reasons why Labour most oppose the Coalition on welfare reform. Doing this involves arguing that new policies won't work, misunderstand the problem and breed a deeply harmful social mistrust. Alternatively, we need policies which are based on scientific evidence about the causes of unemployment and which are shaped to support, not punish, vulnerable people. This is not about handing out benefits as of right and leaving it at that, but about providing financial, emotional and practical support, as partners in an equal relationship of mutuality and reciprocity.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

An unhealthy obsession: how the Coalition misses the point on the NHS

The NHS reforms are causing the Coalition their biggest headache since forming a government last May. However, unlike other headaches, this one seems less of an avoidable faux pas, and more of fundamental misunderstanding of the public mood.

Let's be clear what the NHS reforms genuinely propose: a reorientation, albeit a preliminary one, of public healthcare. While we now collectively fund and provide healthcare for each other, the Coalition want to move away from public provision, simply using pooled resources to allow us to buy our own healthcare, via GP commissioning, when we need it. Why do the Coalition want to abandon public provision? Because they want more private businesses involved in the delivery of healthcare. If they didn't want markets, there would be no point in revising the delivery of healthcare in the first place.

The question many people are asking is 'why?'. Public satisfaction with the NHS is at an all-time high, why change it so radically? In response, I think the Coalition offer two rationales.

1. Increasing individual choice. By opening up healthcare services to competition through 'any willing provider', the reforms will open up greater choice for individuals when they require treatment.

2. Maximising healthcare outcomes. By involving the private sector and promoting competition, services will improve: hospitals and healthcare providers will be more incentivised to improve the services they offer and GPs will be able to buy more quality for less money.

Both of these rationales offer competing visions of what the NHS should aim to achieve. The first vision - more individual choice - seems to me quite odd. Sure, individual choice is important in some areas of life; when we are in the supermarket, we want to be free to choose between bananas and apples. But healthcare is not like bananas and apples. We don't want a hospital that looks pretty, or a consultant who has a nice office; we just want the best service.

This is why the second vision has much stronger force for the Coalition: if we open up service provision, we will all be the better for it. While the first vision was a libertarian one, this is an issue of public welfare and how to maximise it.

However, while there are real, profound doubts about whether markets can produce better outcomes in health, this seems to be to be almost besides the point, for it ignores what I think is the third vision of the NHS and, ultimately, the vision which most of us hold dear:

3. Promoting social cohesion and solidarity.

This, I believe, is the underlying purpose why so many millions of people hold the NHS dear. We do not simply cherish the NHS because it is extremely good at maximising individual health outcomes (which it is, incidentally), we cherish it because of the values which underpin the collective, universal provision of healthcare: that we will all stand together in times of need to help each other out.

Transforming the NHS into an insurance system will rob it of this vision. It will transform the purpose of the NHS into nothing but the satisfaction of individual preferences and outcomes.

In other words, it will be just like buying bananas and apples.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Children's play

I've just come across this news story, which says that Tory-controlled Wandsworth council is planning to charge children £2.50 every time they use a local playground.

The argument for doing this is that there are excessive costs associated with running the playground and, subsequently, it is unfair for Wandsworth taxpayers to subsidise taxpayers from other parts of London who use the playground.

There are many, many problems with this, not least the effect it could have on children from poor families; children which most of us presumably believe should have as equal a chance as any to play.

Besides this however, there also seems to be something deeply, morally offensive about the idea. It is instantly reminiscent of the Coalition's proposals to privatise forestry. Just as that idea offended the nation, I can see this one doing exactly the same. Introducing a market mechanism into a playground devalues and corrupts what playgrounds are for: a collective, universal enjoyment for each and every child.

Public unease at the use of the market - whether in a forest, a prison or a playground - reminds me of an argument made by the philosopher Michael Sandel: There are some things money can't buy, and there are some things money shouldn't buy.

If we do let money buy precious, valued goods like playgrounds, we risk forgetting why we built them in the first place.

Labour's vision for 2015

Progress, the New Labour think-tank, recently announced a forthcoming publication called The Purple Book. As far as I can tell, it will be a collection of essays arguing that, in order to win in 2015, Labour must cling on to and revive the path set by Tony Blair.

As well as presumably being committed to the New Labour policy mix of marketised public services, welfare conditionality and neo-liberal economics, the Purple bookers state their logic that: New Labour is the only governing philosophy to win a general election for two decades.

While this might be true, it is simultaneously true that New Labour - as a 'governing philosophy' - lost the 2010 election. The logic that a political philosophy should be maintained after his failed, simply because it was once successful, is utterly flawed. Thatcherism once rode the high wave of British politics, yet the Tories only became re-electable once they tried to ditch the association.

Importantly, there is a deeper lesson in this for the Labour Party. Throughout post-war history, political parties have consistently been punished for 'ideological hangovers'. For a while in the 1980s, Labour promoted policies which had been roundly defeated at the polls. Similarly, by focusing on traditional Tory themes of Europe and immigration, the post-Blair Conservatives committed themselves to a self-induced electoral wilderness.

While political parties don't win if they commit themselves to old ideas, no matter how successful, nor do they win by marginally repositioning a policy message. Kinnock's defeats in 1987 and 1992 can be seen in this light, as can Cameron's failure to win outright in 2010.

Rather, true success comes when a completely fresh vision and message is offered to the electorate. This doesn't mean dumping on the past, but accepting that history's ideas can't win the battles of the future.

Ed Miliband thus has three options: (a) to take the Progress approach and revive New Labour; (b) to shift away from New Labour and abandon some of its policy proposals; or (c) to offer the public a completely new 'governing philosophy'. While option (a) seems very unlikely, my worry is that we will end up with (b), when what we need is (c).

Of course, developing a new philosophy is not an easy political or intellectual task; the only attempt at it thus far is Blue Labour. Whilst I have written on Blue Labour and am sympathetic to it, it is clear that intellectually it is still disparate, without a totally coherent structure or message. Similarly, it has come across a tide of political opposition within the Labour Party, with many striving to bury it.

Still, it persists in gathering interest and, until I see an equally original proposal of where Labour should go, I think it offers the best hope for winning in 2015. As Chuka Umunna wrote today on Left Foot Forward, Labour has to offer a vision to the electorate. The problem at the moment is that Labour's 'vision' consists solely of a moderately different deficit reduction plan to the Coalition's. This is not the stuff of winning elections.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

U-turns and policy-making

For my first post I thought I would write about the announcement made this week by David Willetts, the universities minister, that students from wealthy families may be able to buy places at top universities.

I'm not going to rant and rave about the injustice of the proposal, although I think it is wrong for many reasons, but make a comment instead on what this says about the Coalition's policy-making process.

The Government's u-turn, which seemed inevitable from the moment the policy was aired, happened on the same day, so it probably won the prize for the quickest policy reversal in recent memory. Yet the most important feature of the story is that it is clearly part of a definable trend.

The first policy reversal was probably the school sports u-turn, followed by the decision not to sell-off part of the nation's forestry. We have of course seen a remarkable change of direction over the NHS plans, as well as a less publicised announcement about plans to slow down the scale of public sector outsourcing. Now we have Willetts' humiliation. That is five on my count, and there are probably more.

What does this suggest about Coalition policy-making? In crude terms, it seems that they are not thinking things through, in terms of the objectives of policy, the practicalities and the public reaction. The strategy seems to be to work-up and announce a new policy and, if all these three things work against it, dump it. Usually, you would expect these factors to be thought through during the early stages of the policy-making process.

Why might this be? In a Dispatches documentary this week, Cameron and Clegg both said they been strongly influenced by Tony Blair's belief that he was far too slow during New Labour's first term and, as a result, what he came to see as his central domestic mission - public sector reform - never quite reached the heights he had hoped.

Cameron seems to think that his government must avoid - at all costs - taking things slowly. And I think this is probably why there have been so many ill-thought through policies. What Cameron must learn - and there is scant evidence that he is doing so - is that policy-making is a long, difficult process which must account for a multitude of variables.

This week should have been a good one for Cameron, given his party's good local election results and Labour's very mixed ones. However, if Cameron doesn't learn the lesson of the u-turn, he may find that more good weeks are turned to bad.