Liam Byrne is currently one of Labour’s most important politicians. He combines his role in co-ordinating the party’s policy review with leading for Labour on Work and Pensions. His hobbies include “banging on” about immigration, deficit reduction and welfare reform.
But in fewer than eighteen months, his political career is almost certainly going to be over. Here’s why and how the principles of responsibility and reciprocity could help him save his job, while at the same time helping reform the welfare state for the better.
Every two years, Labour elects its Shadow Cabinet. Last time, Liam finished in 19th place, scraping into the Shadow Cabinet by just one vote. Next time, competition will be even fiercer, as some of Labour’s rising stars put their names forward, and David Miliband may return. It may be that even if he doesn’t get elected by fellow MPs, he will be offered some kind of role through the “Affirmative Action for special advisers and management consultants” programme which Labour has run in recent years.
We’ve heard from Liam and from Ed Miliband that Labour’s approach to welfare is going to be built around “responsibility”. This approach draws on research done by the Fabian Society.
Once you get past drivel such as Ed Miliband’s charming anecdote about how he met a disabled scrounger and carried out an impromptu assessment of his capability to work, there is plenty of merit in the idea that greater reciprocity in the welfare state could help to rebuild public support and make the system work better for everyone. But it will require a lot more work.
Ed Miliband’s idea of adjusting social housing allocations policies is
(a) something which is already happening and
(b) the housing policy equivalent of rearranging deckchairs as the ship sinks – given the huge shortage of affordable housing.
Or take Liam Byrne’s idea that people who aren’t making an effort to look for jobs should have weekly appointments ignores the fact that
(a) this can already happen,
(b) it doesn’t work very well, and
(c) the way welfare to work provision is funded on payment for sustainable job outcomes means that there is every incentive to see people who don’t want a job as infrequently as possible, and instead to focus on people who are work ready and want to do so.
No one should reasonably expect Labour to have a fully worked out set of proposals yet, but it will be Liam’s job to work out some of these details.
Now, he might well make a right Purnell of doing this, coming up with a set of unworkable, incompetent proposals which are designed to sound tough and nothing more. And no matter how “tough” the proposals, the Tories will come up with something “tougher” and more vindictive. We’d like to offer him an alternative.
Sue Marsh and the Broken of Britain have done some outstanding work on gathering ideas on how the current system isn’t working and what should be done instead to help sick and disabled people. Kate Green MP is an expert in what works in tackling poverty, and has called for the “moral imperative” of addressing the barriers to work rather than attacking the workless.
Plus, there’s a lot to be learned from Labour’s record in government in cutting child poverty, which researchers from America describe as almost miraculous.
So here’s our deal, based on the principles of responsibility and reciprocity. Liam Byrne could spend the next few months listening to the people who are hardest hit by the government’s cuts, working with groups like Broken of Britain, listening to Kate Green’s advice to stop demonising people who are out of work, and coming up with common sense policies such as reforming ESA and getting rid of Atos; policies which really help people into work and supporting them in work; and which help make sure that people who can’t work have an adequate income to live with dignity.
If he can show that he really really listened, we’ll encourage Labour MPs to vote for him in the next Shadow Cabinet elections.
As Liam says, we need “a bargain that rewards the people who do the right thing”. If he does the right thing and listens to people living in poverty, then his reward would be greater support from the Labour grassroots and greater job security.