Labour’s thinking needs to enter a new middle-groundby Andrew Harrop / January 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
When the left talks about social security it sounds like a car being driven with no middle gears. Half the time it debates little tweaks to make Conservative policies a bit less bad and save universal credit from itself. The rest of the time it dreams of total transformation and the creation of a universal basic income paid to everyone without condition. It seems that the left can be timidly incremental or radically iconoclastic—but nothing in between.
Take the 2017 Labour manifesto. The party pledged a handful of small changes to take the edge off the most extreme Conservative reforms, but it presented no major agenda of its own. (Overall, Labour promised to spend 2 per cent more on social security than the Tories.)
Since the election, it’s been a bit better, with Labour calling for the 2015 cuts to universal credit to be reversed. But most of the party’s campaigning energy has been devoted to how the new benefit system operates and how fast it is rolled out—not on its inadequate level of payment.
Meanwhile the breathless talk of universal basic income, as a solution to a hypothetical economy with much less work, is also problematic. Even researchers who are well disposed to the idea have found that a fully-fledged UBI which replaces most means-tested benefits would increase poverty. People with the lowest living standards would be no better off than they are today and many in the middle would see their taxes rise more than their income.
Labour’s thinking needs to enter a new middle-ground, that is focused on big goals but is also practical and popular. The party needs to prioritise raising living standards, increasing protection and building public support.
This was the territory addressed during a wide-ranging debate at last weekend’s Fabian Society New Year Conference, where Debbie Abrahams, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, spoke alongside reformers seeking bold but practical change.
There was agreement that the first step for Labour should be to shift the time-scale of its thinking. If the party just focuses on opposition, or the first year or so in power, then its plans will be too modest. If it looks to distant decades, it will never shift from utopian ideas. To get social security right…