18-21 Year Olds: Tories Ignoring Lived Experience

The Tory plans for cutting the benefit cap and stopping 18-21 year olds claiming housing benefit as well as linking their JSA to ‘community work’ has caused a bit of a stir over the weekend. First, let me say that, as things stand, it’s unlikely that we’ll get a Tory majority to implement this and I seriously doubt a Lib Dem coalition partner would endorse it (then again, you never know with them). However, there are a couple of issues I’d like to highlight.

Whoever has drafted this policy has done that thing of looking at the figures and ignoring lived experience (possibly because it’s not their lived experience). Unlike many people, I don’t actually believe that Tories go out of their way to attack the poor. I think it’s genuinely a case of not understanding them. A few more working-class members, a few more people who’ve had proper jobs, a little more consultation with the public and things would work out a lot better. But that would deprive them of these nifty headlines, wouldn’t it? Now, where was I?

These new rules on 18-21 year olds use the blueprint of a middle-class family who can just about stretch to supporting a child beyond the age of 18 (and want to). I’m lucky, I come from such a family. However, I’m well-acquainted with people who don’t. One girl I was friends with in college had a fractious relationship with the parent she lived with which led to her being kicked out. She first lived with another friend then moved into a housing scheme which, I’m assuming, involved some sort of benefit. What are the safeguards under this new scheme to ensure that people don’t become homeless? Is it going to be an Atos-style assessment? In which case, every young person with a tricky parental relationship is doomed.

The idea of ‘community work’ to earn JSA is another difficult one. Now, I don’t believe in workfare but, when workfare first came up, I pointed out that asking people to do work in their local areas (rather than for a big corporation which could afford to hire staff) was one way of trying to edge us back into our communities. Of course, it bumps into other policies coming the other way – council house tenancy periods are one that, I believe, saps the incentive for engaging with your local area.

Ultimately, these problems don’t have the easy fix of turning off the money tap and seeing what happens. I can predict it well enough – increased youth homelessness which, in turn, hampers their future prospects and so makes society poorer as a whole. And, if real community work is superseded in favour of workfare, then you’re just going to breed more resentment and deprive working people of actual jobs in these companies.

Good headline: bad policy. That usually covers whatever comes from any of the parties.

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Labour – Picking Suits Over the Average Supporter

The Independent have picked up on a story I was following on Twitter from the moment it broke. Right before Ed Miliband’s speech on Tuesday, a few disabled delegates were told to move from their front row seats and, in the transit process, one who walks with a crutch fell. They were replaced in the front row by ‘bright young things’ in suits and, sure enough, Miliband walked that way on his exit from the venue. Stewards tried to explain that the seats were reserved for disabled delegates but were overruled by conference organisers.

First of all, let’s dispense with all this ‘alleged’ rubbish. I’ve followed the woman in question on Twitter for quite some time and know her to be a decent, hard-working carer and mum who has been very vocal with her criticisms this year about the Labour conference being unaffordable for less affluent party members. By sheer bad luck, the organisers couldn’t have budged a more committed and outspoken member of the audience.

What message is Labour trying to send out here? That when Miliband walks from the hall they want you to see young people in suits and not the vulnerable who the party still claims is their priority? That corporatism trumps need? I think if I was a member of the Labour Party (grassroots, not that extortionate number who live in Greater London according to some figures yesterday I can’t lay my hands on) I’d want to see a representative audience. I’d want to see people who spoke to the average Labour vote, not the politicos who will go back to an expensive lunch with their think tanks.

Maybe it’s just, as I keep saying, the lack of a coherent overarching message that’s the problem. I’m glad that the Labour Party is taking these complaints seriously but I’m not sure it goes much way to fixing the damage done.

Ed Miliband’s Speech

I do wish Ed Miliband understood knew how much I wanted him to succeed as Labour leader. He was my first choice, an alternative to the shininess of his brother and the arrogance of Balls. I thought he had a vision back in 2010 when he was elected. You know what? I think he did. But four years of being insulated in that Westminster hole has knocked it out of him. I think he’s listened to too many advisers (and leadership competitors), and let the party as a whole slip from his grasp. There’s no coherent plan involving every shadow minister. Everybody just seems to be doing their own thing. Some of them are doing it well – most are not. But I don’t get the impression there’s a man at the helm who knows where all this is leading. That’s desperately sad at this point.

Yesterday’s speech is being criticised for the things it left out (the deficit, immigration) rather than for the things it said. Poor Miliband doesn’t have too much luck though: the beginning of his speech was overshadowed by the Dave Lee Travis verdict and then Obama stole his thunder a little late with a press conference. When the speech of the Leader of the Opposition (in the conference before an election) only gets eight minutes on Channel 4 News and is shunted down to the fourth item (I think) then there’s trouble ahead.

From looking at the full text of the speech, I can see that he’s continued the ‘we’re not the Tories’ line. That nearly lost them Scotland a week ago, I don’t know why he thinks it’s going to be successful now. Saying what you’re not is only part of the challenge; you need to say what you are. I don’t get the impression the Labour Party in 2014 knows. They aided a lot of the fragmentation they’re now railing against (academics, PFIs that are crippling the NHS, substandard welfare reform) and their spending plans don’t seem to be backed up with coherent figures. Missing out the lines about reducing the deficit may have been a good idea for Miliband because there’s no way he can do it. The savings already identified are tiny and he’s pledging any money raised from things like a Mansion Tax will go elsewhere.

Of course, Labour doesn’t want to be seen as the party of austerity by its supporters who are fed up of austerity. It also doesn’t want to give the Tories the stick of ‘they haven’t changed’ to beat them with. That leaves them in this middle ground where they’re pleasing no one. The 35% strategy to secure the traditional Labour voters and not bother wooing anyone else only works if your supporters believe in what you’re saying. From what I’ve seen, the NHS vows are very popular but the rhetoric on the economy offered by Balls is not. With Miliband not really endorsing his Shadow Chancellor’s plans, the implication is that the Labour Party doesn’t know what it wants to be.

I think that pretty much sums up their problems over the last four years. And it may be too late to do anything about it.

Three Points on English Devolution Debate

Social media has, of course, been buzzing with comment over the last few days. A lot of it is angry or frustrated, some of it makes sense and the level of Twitter sarcasm has just shot up to new levels. I’ve been watching things zip past me and thinking. These are three things that emerged from that pondering. There was a fourth but it slipped into the ether.

  1. Many people are criticising those wanting devolution for aspiring to create new ‘tiers of bureaucracy’. That’s certainly not the type of devolution I’m in favour of. I want powers passed down which would leave Westminster with relatively little to do. That’s why, in my post on Friday, I suggested a boundary reform which would shrink the number of MPs. On top of this, I’d only envisage them sitting as and when needed – and being paid accordingly. Those professional politicians should be happy – it would allow them to take on all those directorships they currently hold without it seeming like they were neglecting their constituents.
  2. I’ve seen several references to English devolution ‘taking over the debate’. I’m sorry, haven’t we just spent two and a half years discussing Scotland? If they’re incapable of sharing the limelight or, if they want this special status of being the only country in the UK with proper devolution, then we have a problem of an entirely different colour.
  3. Labour are fast boxing themselves into a corner. A number of the big guns just can’t engage with the debate because they’re stuck peddling Miliband’s line. The debate will rumble on throughout the conference and if Miliband doesn’t come up with some answers then he’s going to become even more of an irrelevance.

Could I also ask you to take a look at this site which I’m involved with and offer your thoughts? Either here or there.

Miliband Fudges, Cameron Spies a Chance

For most of the weekend, the news has been on a loop. It consists of ‘Gordon Brown’s vow’, ‘Ed Miliband blusters’, ‘Alex Salmond calls us all liars’ and ‘David Cameron sees his chance’. At this point, I’m wishing it had been a ‘Yes’ vote, just to shut everybody up. Because, as important as our constitution is, there are other important things going on in the world – ISIL are still terrorising the Middle East and we’re sat on our hands infighting. I understand why no moves to join in properly with the air strikes were made before the referendum but we need to push our internal resentments aside and join with our allies. I hope people on both sides of the Scottish debate would recognise that constitutional change while groups like ISIL remain a threat would be like tinkering with the car engine despite knowing a meteor is about to hit – extremely short-sighted.

Of course, this isn’t to say we can’t multi-task. We need a good balance between focusing on the larger problems across the world (Russia’s another one) and national introspection. Which is another good reason why constitutional change cannot and should not be rushed. I’ve seen a lot this weekend about Gordon Brown’s ‘promise’ being broken. I’ve become almost hoarse saying that Gordon Brown is not in government and therefore could not make a binding promise.

Before anyone screams at me, I’m not backtracking on the idea of devolution at all. As I said on Friday, though, I believe we need to do it properly. We can’t stick to an artificial timetable just because an ex-Prime Minister says so. This timetable hasn’t been put to a parliamentary vote yet and, more importantly, it hasn’t been put to the British people. I say ‘British’ and I mean ‘British’ – this time devolution has the opportunity to affect us all and I’m afraid if the Scots have to wait a little while because of that then that’s the way it is. Apparently a good percentage of Scottish voters see the inherent problems in Scottish MPs voting on English-only legislation. Can these reasonable people give us five minutes to catch our breath and work out what’s to be done about it? We’re not denying you your devolution, just trying to grasp some of our own.

Amending our entire political system quickly would be a disaster. Ed Miliband wants a constitutional convention next autumn: that is untenable. Miliband hopes to deflect the issue; he hopes to get into power (utilising Scottish MPs to win, of course) then fudge things from there. He’s repeated this weekend that he doesn’t really believe in ‘English votes for English laws’ because it puts him at a disadvantage electorally (not that he said that, naturally). Miliband will get through this round of Scottish devolution according to Gordon Brown’s timetable and hope the rest of us just shut up. I’m not sure that’s going to work this time.

David Cameron is guilty of opportunism. Weakening Labour’s electoral chances was too great a prize for some Tories to pass up and perhaps that’s why they’re suddenly dancing around at the idea of ‘English votes for English laws’. Opportunistic, it may be, but it is most certainly right. It just can’t be rushed, that’s all.

The Labour conference this week is momentous. I’ll be watching closely to see what Miliband’s speech contains. Any more hopeless platitudes and I fear that his electoral campaign’s over before it’s really begun.

What Next?

For the most part, during the independence referendum, I’ve kept it zipped. I didn’t want to be drawn into arguments and there was certainly a feeling of letting the Scots fight it out amongst themselves. I’ve regurgitated other opinions, blogs and editorials, but rarely ventured my own. It didn’t matter that I was half-expecting Alex Salmond to promise unicorns in an independent Scotland – saying so would’ve only caused an argument and, frankly, one I could do without. It’s all about picking your battles wisely. Part of me hoped that Scotland would  vote ‘Yes’ and then the horrors of Salmond’s half-truths on currency union, EU membership and endless oil reserves could be exposed. However, this mischievous pixie part of me was beaten by the sensible part that didn’t want to see the break-up of Great Britain just to prove a political point (there were several moments in the campaign when Labour seemed happy to do this though…).

So what now? Somehow we have to forget the animosity of the referendum campaign whilst still taking account of the problems it threw up. The most pressing of these is the so-called ‘devo-max’ proposals which have been bandied around a lot since the ‘No’ campaign started panicking. Fair enough – more powers for Scotland. I don’t deny that it’s a wise move. With the same caveats that others are making plain:

  • England and Wales must have their own devolution settlements to match what Scotland gets. At this point, the politicians don’t get to throw a load of powers to Scotland and appease the rest of us with a few paltry changes. Now the campaign is over, we’re through tip-toeing around. This is now our devolution settlement as much as it is Scotland’s.
  • Non-English MPs must not be able to vote on English-only legislation. This throws up massive problems for a potential Labour majority in 2015 which may not have the requisite English MPs to pass legislation but, frankly, that’s their problem, not the electorate’s. Imagine being forced to work in tandem with your ‘enemies’ to pass sensible legislation instead of just scoring cheap political points.
  • This process cannot be rushed. Gordon Brown came up with this rapid timetable to appease the Scots (and get it all over with before the General Election) but it won’t work like that, not if they’re trying to do it properly and sensibly. It’s not backtracking to slow the process down – we just need to do it right this time or we’ll have the same situation in another ten years or so with one country feeling victimised by the union (and, I suspect, the next time it’ll be the English).

We have the possibility here for massive constitutional reform, beyond anything Nick Clegg tried to do with his silly little proposals for the House of Lords. And, naturally, it throws up far too many issues to discuss here. These are just a few things that spring to mind about devolution now:

  • The electorate must have a say on any constitutional changes. Yes, this will slow the process down but, like elected mayors in cities around the UK which were roundly defeated, if the politicos are getting it wrong then they need to be told.
  • My personal preference would be for the majority of powers (where possible, of course) to be devolved to regional assemblies following traditionally accepted lines with a few modern adjustments. Yorkshire is one such region which would make an excellent starting-point (but, then, I would say that). The thing about Yorkshire folk, though, is that we have a strong sense of identity which would make a regional assembly for the people, elected by the people, really work in this area. I can’t comment on the strength of regional relationships in the rest of the country.
  • As these regional assemblies come into being, we would naturally need fewer MPs at Westminster. Yes, they would still be making decisions on overarching issues but they would have much less responsibility than previous. So that would require coherent and sensible boundary reform. The last attempt was ridiculous, making no reference to our inherent regional connections and just chopping everything up to fit a size. While I agree that constituency size should be roughly equal, it would matter less in a scenario where many powers are devolved to local level.

This is sounding like a lot of work, isn’t it? Which is why it simply cannot be forced through. I know that the traditional parties will resist because it saps their centralised power but that’s just why it’s the right thing to do. No party leader wants to relinquish the power they’ll wield when they get into Downing Street so they’d rather give Scotland a few more powers and just let the rest of us bumble along being ruled by people who have no comprehension of our locality and local lives.

We’ve seen how Scotland can be energised by the possibility of constitutional change. It’s time for the rest of us to get in on the act.