Sunday 2 October 2016

Don't believe it till you see it

The DWP's decision to cease re-testing chronically ill claimants is, a rare thing for the DWP in its current guise, welcome. It could be interpreted as part of Theresa May's ambition to govern for “everyone”, but it would be unwise to be too optimistic about further possible decisions and strategies. Firstly, we do not know yet who this will apply to. The criteria are yet to be drawn up, and they could easily turn out to be quite restrictive. Secondly, it is effectively a cost free exercise. The repeated assessments, with attendant reconsiderations and appeals, cost the department money, and save very little apart from those who are thrown off the benefit system because of the stress of repeated testing and because of wrong conclusions being drawn about people's fitness. Damien Green does not share Iain Duncan Smith's vindictive attitude towards claimants. Indeed hardly any Tories do, apart from Chris Grayling. Without that vindictive attitude it would be plain to any reasonable manager that the system should be stopped. Saving the government money by axing a pointless system cannot be interpreted as being one nation government. It means nothing politically. We also have to consider that other planned cuts will be going ahead, and these are a much more potent test of whether the Tories will be governing on behalf of everybody.

We need to focus on things which tangibly improve lives

Originally published in Liberal Democrat Voice on October 1st. Go there for a vibrant comment thread.

Are we barking up the wrong tree?

I have wondered for a while if we are focussing on the wrong things, particularly where the EU is concerned. For the record, I want to remain in the EU. I see it as a flawed institution, run by the same cadre of neoliberal capitalists as those who run this country and most of the other countries in Europe. It has, however, two things going for it. The first is the possibility of deeper co-operation across national boundaries. The second is that it has woven into it a thick texture of human rights which the neoliberals despite their best efforts have been unable to unwind – it was after all woven in before they came along.

But when I look at this country's biggest problems, the EU is neither the problem nor the solution. The media cacophony remains completely confusing as to why people voted to leave. The people who voted leave are equally confusing, and there are massive attempts to shut down debate by taking offence if suggestions are made that, for instance, cutting immigration will not solve any problems other than the fragility of some people's sense of national identity. Taking back control does not take back control, but merely hands it to different members of the neoliberal elite. We still need to identify and solve the problems which have caused such disaffection with the political process.

Advocating staying in the EU is the same as advocating different voting systems. There is no point in either if nothing changes. For a very large majority of those who voted to leave, the key problem is disillusionment. Their experience is that, whatever changes at the top, their circumstances do not change. That experience has, if anything, been reinforced in recent years as the elite gets richer and working lives become more precarious. They do not perceive the benefits of staying in the EU; if anything they have been seduced into blaming some of the features of the EU – free movement of people, for instance – as being the cause of their ills.

So, while the flag at the top of our pole still needs to fly – to remain engaged with the EU (and also to think in terms of fairer voting systems), this means nothing to many people if we do not have detailed and credible policies for improving the material conditions of their lives, and make it clear that we prioritise these over what voters see as more flighty, less relevant issues.

So we should focus on housing (100% on the Farronometer there) – making housing available and affordable. This goes whether it is for renters or owners, and we should encourage more use of different forms of tenure – co-ownership and so on.

We should focus on public services, particular in terms of adjusting financing when population movement causes pressure. This goes with localism, a great LibDem virtue, but again, localism goes nowhere in the public mind without tangible outcomes.

We should focus on regional policy, particularly those regions that voted heavily in favour of brexit. Not directly because of that, but because that vote was nurtured in a sense of loss for destroyed prospects that have never been recovered. The focus of any policy decision should be the benefit to the region: if, say, someone proposes a new rail link between London and South Wales, the key question should be what is the benefit to South Wales.

We should focus on employment and benefit policies which are fit for the reality of the precarious working lives of too many people nowadays. Universal Credit is a good idea, being implemented in a hopeless fashion. The idea can be salvaged while removing the vindictiveness at the heart of current DWP culture.

Political ideas work best with tangible benefits. We've been great at the ideas; we need to found them solidly in tangible outcomes.