Monday, 29 September 2014

Labour is ahead on welfare - what's going on?

Some findings from an opinion poll caught my attention in yesterday's Sunday Times, with the graphic below showing who the public trusts on specific policy areas.  As we might expect, David Cameron and the Tories are more trusted than Ed Miliband and Labour on the traditional Conservative issues of the economy, law and order and defence.  Labour, meanwhile, romps home on its own traditional ground of health and education.

The figure that caught my eye however was the one for welfare benefits, with Miliband enjoying a five-point lead over Cameron.  This seems bizarre. And is counter to the conventional media narrative that Coalition reforms are extremely popular.  Only last night on BBC Five Live, the right-wing commentator Tim Montgomerie was extolling tough welfare reforms as a sure-fire election winner.

So what is going on?  Why are Labour more trusted on the welfare state, contrary to anything you might read in the media about social security?

I would posit that three things might be happening. The first is that enough people are feeling the negative effects of benefit cuts - particularly ones related to tax credits and Child Benefit.  Further, under a majority Tory government with Cameron as PM, there would be more to come: for younger (removing entitlement to JSA) and older voters (means-testing of some universal benefits).

The second is that the Tories are finally going toxic on welfare.  I've wondered in the past how far the Conservatives might go with welfare reform - and the party has often given the confident impression that they can go as far as they like without losing public support.  However, it might be the case that they are moving too quickly - beyond where public opinion lies.  In policy terms, I'm mainly thinking about removing benefits for young people - which seems counter-productive and, in plain terms, cruel.

Finally, it might be that attitudes to the welfare state are softening as part of the naturally occurring attitudinal cycle.  In other words, welfare attitudes - just like GDP - go up and down over time.  This certainly seemed the case in the latest British Social Attitudes survey, which reported a significant shift in public opinion.

It is still too early to say whether we are witnessing a major shift in welfare attitudes.  Yet the signs are that we just might be.  And for Labour, this could have major policy implications - giving the party much more room to far, far bolder.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Unemployment and well-being

Well-being is rising in the UK - and analysts argue that this is due to falling unemployment.  This is an easy link to make, given that unemployment is so damaging to well-being (as well as to other indicators of health).

That unemployment is falling is good news - for well-being and for the economy.  But what can we do for those who remain unemployed?  How can their well-being be protected?

There are broadly three options available to governments (assuming that governments care about the unemployed's well-being, which is not altogether obvious).

One option is to implement a jobs guarantee scheme, as originally proposed by Richard Layard and now supported by the Labour Party.  Depending on its form, a jobs guarantee scheme could essentially abolish long-term unemployment.  Which would be, presumably, beneficial for people's health.

A second option, explored by me, is to reform training programmes for the unemployed.  If programmes were more personalised, with more focus on work experience/skills and treated people with dignity, then they could be effective ways to reduce the mental health costs of unemployment.

A third option is more radical - and linked to the limitation of the previous two approaches.  That is: what if these approaches simply reinforce the social norms attached to paid work?  This could be problematic, as it is arguably these norms that are responsible for unemployment's negative effects on well-being.  In other words, would a jobs guarantee scheme reinforce the ideology of work: the notion that Work is Good and, correspondingly, Unemployment is Bad?

The argument here then is that to truly deal with the negative impact of unemployment, you have to change the nature and status of unemployment itself.  And this would require a far larger economic and social reorganisation than that implied by a jobs guarantee scheme or better labour market training programmes.  It might require, for example, a strategy of reducing the number of hours we all work.  Or, even more radically, introducing a basic income scheme.

In both of these strategies, a plausible outcome would be a blurring of the line between work and non-work: between employment and unemployment.  Being 'unemployed' would mean less in a society where 'working' meant something altogether different.

Changing what it means to be unemployed is, however, a large undertaking.  Yet we should be careful of supporting policies that might well aim to deal with unemployment's negative effects yet, in doing so, strengthen its (dangerous) hold on society.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Things can only get flatter. Why are Labour miserable at the prospect of power?

A common observation from an assorted range of journalists is that the Labour conference this week in Manchester has all been a bit flat.  Something largely confirmed by Ed Miliband's disappointing speech yesterday.  On my own part, I've been milling around the conference since Sunday, attending various fringe events in which I've also been observing the mood of the party's MPs and activists.

The journalists, I think, are completely correct in their assessments.  Of the events I've attended, MPs seem completely underwhelmed and unexcited by the prospect of power.  This should be unusual.  They are, after all, talking in genuinely probable terms about how they will plan to change the country in a matter of months.

So, what is going on?  Why is the Labour Party - from its leader to its activists - so unenthused about governing again?  All in all, there are seemingly three things going on.

The first is that, as everyone is now aware, Labour's ability to exercise power will be severely hampered by the fiscal restraints of the next parliament.  In accepting the challenge to eliminate the deficit without significant tax increases, Labour has committed itself to severe spending cuts.  The choice it can thus offer the electorate is a limited one: Labour will shift around the priorities of government but will not, and cannot, significantly shift spending plans.

The second is that, although Labour is close to power, this will be - at best - limp power.  Based upon polling trends, the best case scenario seems to be a tiny majority for Miliband.  A more probable scenario however is a hung parliament, with Labour in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.  Personally, I think there might be benefits to working with the Lib Dems - but there is a strong, systematic aversion to a Lib-Lab coalition from many corners of the Labour Party.

Finally, there is the issue of whether Labour is psychologically ready for power.  Political parties are just not used to regaining power so soon after losing it.  Plus, the scale of Labour's general election defeat - and its context, set amidst the death of the economic model the party worked within and advocated for 13 years - means that five years is a short time to complete such a monumental political inquest.

Ed Miliband however has arguably done an impressive job in conducting this inquest - relatively peacefully and quickly.  Yet, it remains unclear what Miliband's Labour stands for.  It accepts the economic terms set by the Conservatives yet aspires to build a new form of capitalism.  It talks of cutting Child Benefit but of a "big offer" on childcare.  Labour finds itself in a position where power is unexpectedly, and perhaps prematurely, within reach.  The question is, does the party really want to grasp it just yet?