David Willetts: Solving our nation’s problems requires a fair deal for the young

3 Dec

Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.  

Civil society is a powerful concept covering every form of association which stands between the individual and the state. It is one of the great strengths of modern liberal democracies and distinguishes them from totalitarian states or dictatorships which are hostile to it.

I myself have written about “civic conservatism”, to challenge a critique of free market economics that it was just about atomistic and selfish individuals and left no room for the institutions which are outside the market but not controlled by the state. They are the ones which often make life worthwhile.

Margaret Thatcher was often caricatured (and is again in the new series of The Crown) as just thinking of balance sheets and accountancy when she also wanted to roll back the state to create more space for civil associations.

But the breadth of the concept of civil society produces risks and difficulties too. It can become an amorphous shifting residual: what is left after more powerful forces such as market and state have done their bit. It is like that strand of theology, “the God of the gaps”, in which the divine is thought to be expressed in phenomena which are not yet explained by science.

That opens the question of what kind of relationship civil society has to other forms of social organisation. There is an ideological debate about whether the state should be seen as friend or enemy. Did the creation of the modern welfare state in the first half of the twentieth century lead to the destruction of the friendly societies, or was it partly a response to their increasing weakness in the face of the rise of those twin features of a modern industrial society – unemployment and retirement?

The relationship between civil society and the family is not straightforward either. The instinct to look after one’s own family is natural and noble. But family ties reinforced by inheritance can be bad for social mobility. Extended families can themselves act as a kind of mini-civil society serving their own kith and kin, but are those relationships benign or a kind of clan-based corruption? The rise of civil society in Great Britain was in part the product of small nuclear families and limited government leaving space in which civil society, at least of a certain sort, could thrive.

Close up, civil society proves to be a surprisingly controversial idea. But engaging with tricky issues is better than the alternative, which is to leave it just as a vague appeal to do good. Civil society then becomes a kind of social glue which we imagine we can pour over a diverse and divided society to try to hold it together. Asking for us to be good and co-operate with others is admirable, but on its own may not actually get us very far.

Instead we should start with much more limited and less favourable assumptions about human behaviour. The challenge is to try to construct policies promoting civil society with minimal prior assumptions. Instead of trying to stick us together with benign altruism, it is more like dry-stone walling where the stones are held together not because they want to be, but because of the most basic natural forces and skilled institutional design. The starting assumptions about humans should be as limited as those which lie behind modern economics.

The intellectual resources of game theory and evolutionary biology then help to show a way forward from this apparently unpropitious starting point. One of the classic puzzles in modelling human behaviour is the Prisoner’s Dilemma – two criminals are arrested with strong incentives to betray each other even though they both do best if neither of them betrays. As neither can trust the other not to betray them, they end up both betraying and therefore are both worse off.

The dilemma forces us to think through the circumstances in which humans can co-operate. A key advance was made by Robert Axelrod when he showed that if we think of this dilemma not as a one-off but as an endlessly repeated exercise, then it becomes rational not to betray until you are betrayed. This in turn helps us to understand what institutions do. They provide environments where repeated interactions promote co-operative behaviour. And we are talking here of real institutions which can do much more than the much more invertebrate concept of community.

This raises another set of other problems. Do such patterns of behaviour within institutions reward insiders versus outsiders? Indeed, one of the liveliest issues animating a lot of politics is who are the insiders, and who are the outsiders? Some feeling against immigrants comes from the fear, however unjustified, that they are freeloaders, coming to benefit from a welfare state to which they have not contributed. It is one of the paradoxes of liberalism that it embraces diversity, but that it may also reduce support for a welfare state.

And what if the insiders are the members of our own generation? Think of a local residents’ association committed to supporting the local community. Its volunteers serve as councillors or as school governors, but they are all middle-aged or older owner-occupiers and oppose new housing in their area because they are unaware or uninterested in the younger people desperate to get on the housing ladder.

Why should they care about the younger generation? Well it makes sense to look after the younger generation because as we get older we hope they will look after us. It is not just a one off decision, it will shape what they do to us later. In the wise words of the great American bumper sticker – “be nice to your kids they choose your nursing home.” And as tax payers they might be helping to finance your nursing home as well.

So if we boomers treat them fairly now they may treat us better when the boot is on the other foot. Or as Paul Samuelson put it very well: “giving goods to an older person is figuratively giving goods to yourself when old”. It is these exchanges between generations which are at the heart of society, and also the modern welfare state. It is why services from education (for the young) and health care (for the old) matter so much to us.

At any one moment they may look like transactions with someone else, but they are also exchanges with ourselves at different stages of the life cycle. It is easy to think of these people of different ages as just different – imprinted with different experiences during their formative years and familiar with different technologies. But there is another way of thinking of them: just like us but of a different age. And the more we can connect with them the more we may continue to support these exchanges between different generations which keep society together.

That is particularly true as the country faces up to both the demographic challenge associated with the big baby boomer generation growing old and the need for rebuilding and renewing associated with recovery from the pandemic. Building back better must be above all an investment in the younger generation who have had the greatest economic hit from the epidemic. We owe it to them.

The above is an extract from ‘Civil Society, Unleashed’, an essay collection published by Pro Bono Economics on December 1.

Andy Cook: To help reduce mass unemployment, back up Universal Credit with Universal Support

2 Nov

Andy Cook is Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Social Justice

In politics, as often in life, you seldom get praise for what doesn’t happen.

But when we look back on the recent history of this pandemic, we will recognise Universal Credit as a great success story. Had we still been operating the paper-based system of the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown era, we would have had unemployment queues snaking round city centres. It wouldn’t have needed an England footballer to point this out, it would (quite rightly) have shamed the country.

I remember that time well. Despite massive government spending, I founded a charity to tackle unemployment – because there were generations of kids who were being harmed because they didn’t see the benefits of work in their home life. We musn’t return to those days.

We are now facing the grim prospect of unemployment as high as 13 per cent – that’s around four million people without a job. In July, 5.6 million people were receiving welfare with almost half officially “searching for work.” One of the areas with the highest numbers of new Universal Credit claims is leafy Guildford in Surrey.

Britain faces the very real problem of mass, long-term unemployment. At the beginning of 2020, there were 3.1 million people in Britain who were not working, but wanted a job. This figure could grow by more than two million due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Benefit claimants are increasingly vulnerable, with more complex challenges, meaning that they need more support when navigating our welfare system. Inadequate support for some claimants has resulted in some falling in to a ‘state of crisis’ – increased financial insecurity, food bank usage, evictions, and homelessness as well as worsening mental health.

Unemployment can be disastrous for any individual. Unemployment is not just the loss of an income, but the loss of a sense of purpose, identity, and dignity. Poor health quickly follows.

If we want to get really serious about tackling poverty, we have to get serious about making sure people get into jobs. Financial pressures can lead to debt, housing problems, relationship strains, and in the most extreme cases, violence, homelessness, substance misuse and criminal activity.

This is the true cost of an unemployment crisis. Worklessness has a lasting impact on communities, and children growing up in a workless household are more likely to perform poorly at school, less likely to work themselves, and end up involved in the criminal justice system.

For all the winter eeconomic plans announced by the Chancellor, tackling the human toll of worklessness will be the biggest long term challenge. Long before the pandemic struck, the UK still had a long-term unemployment problem, with particular challenges from disability, and a disability employment gap that had hardly shifted in a decade.

Despite remarkable successes over the last ten years in halving the number of people unemployed for two years or more, the other half still exist, pandemic or no pandemic. The challenge will now be to make sure that our millions of newly unemployed (and their families) don’t join them as long term unemployment ‘stats’.

There are real human lives behind the statistics – which is why the Chancellor must look seriously at Universal Support.

Universal Support gets money to local charities to offer real personal support for jobseekers. Run by local authorities, Universal Support works alongside Universal Credit payments, with the aim of helping welfare claimants tackle the real barriers to sustained work.

Helping people who may be applying for Universal Credit, but who also need help in stabilising their housing situation, advice on dealing with burdensome debt, help in accessing opportunities to develop skills, or getting an appointment for a medical diagnosis – Universal Support commissions local charities who work with people rather than statistics.

A truly compassionate social security system should be about helping to support people fallen on hard times, not just a welfare check in the post. It is self-evidently not enough for programmes to get people work ready if there is no work. So it’s also time to channel our inner Reagan and go for some big tax cuts targeted at the regions to rebalance the UK and encourage the creation of jobs.

The recovery must be driven by the private sector, but the Government should seize the opportunity to direct this in a regionalist way with rebalancing as an explicit goal.

The Centre for Social Justice’s paper “The Future of Work: Regional Revolution” makes the case for enterprise zones in the UK’s most left behind towns and cities: tax breaks and financial incentives would be offered specifically to businesses operating in these regions. State loans to start-ups should have job creation in our poorest areas as an explicit objective.

We can’t just treat unemployment as a problem on a spreadsheet. There are real human lives behind the statistics, which is where Universal Support comes in. We need to see it in every town. Economic measures to rebuild our regional economies need to go alongside welfare support that stops the spiral of unemployment and offers a compassionate helping hand into newly-created jobs.

How to ensure that disadvantaged children are fed when schools are closed

26 Oct

When Theresa May was Prime Minister, Conservative MPs stopped voting, for a time, against Opposition Day motions.  This had two upsides.  First, they were no longer assailed in their constituencies for trooping through the lobbies against motions that could be read to be innocuous.  Second – and even more to the point – one can’t lose a vote if one doesn’t vote at all.

The downside of not opposing those motions was that, once they passed and the Government then ignored them, Ministers were open to the charge of holding the will of Parliament in contempt.  In any event, Labour then unearthed a device that the Government couldn’t bypass – the Humble Address.

We mention this to-and-fro from the last Parliament in the wake of a vote in this one.  Tory MPs are raging about being whipped to vote against last week’s Opposition Day motion on free school meals – especially those newly-elected last year.  They feel that the Whips’ instruction has made them targets in their seats.

Angela Rayner’s disgusting cry of “scum” may be part of the reason: over 100 Conservative MPs say that they and their staff have been the targets of abuse and threats.  Some Labour MPs have form in this way: remember John McDonnell’s notorious remark about lynching Esther McVey.

We believe that Tory MPs can’t simply run away from Opposition motions.  But we also feel that those unhappy backbenchers have a point.  For the simple truth is that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and the departmental ministers concerned could scarcely be handling this issue worse were they trying.

One can grasp the scale of the problem by pondering the arguments that Conservative MPs have been deploying against making free school meals available during the Christmas holidays.  The problem is not that there are none.  It is that there are too many.

On the one hand, it was said last week that the taxpayer can’t afford it.  It’s true that we are losing a sense of what the Treasury can afford as the Coronavirus bills pile up.  But if the Government can afford Eat Out to Help Out, why can’t it afford Feed Kids to Help Out?

On the other, it was also said that the Government is spending millions on feeding poorer children.  True again.  But the money is divided up between a mass of programmes – support to local authorities, the Universal Credit uplift, the holiday activities and food programme, Fareshare, Magic Breakfast, and more. That’s a mouthful to communicate.

Conservative MPs point out that the last Labour Government didn’t make free school meals available during the holiday period.  Correct: but Gordon Brown’s failed administration is beginning to become a bit of a distant memory. They say that parents should be responsible for feeding their children, not the state.

Quite so – up to a point.  But if the principle were extended to its logical conclusion, there would be no free school meals at all.  What about sudden unemployment after furlough, to strike a timely note?  Or disability?  And what about state policy that frustrates families – complex childcare schemes, high energy bills, food taxes?

When a Tory MPs can claim that vouchers for meals are being spent on crack dens and brothels, without being able to produce hard evidence, one can hear the bottom of the barrel being noisily scraped.  If vouchers are such a bad idea, why did the Government make them available over the summer holidays in the first place?

There is a hint of the Thatcher era about what is happening now.  Some will say that she won three elections, and the moral of those victories is: ignore the protesters.  But there is a new dimension – even if you don’t believe that the loss of reputation for compassion came back to haunt the Party once it lost its reputation for competence.

It is that while Labour MPs and the hard left are one thing, local businesses, charities and football clubs are quite another.  All these, and more, are queuing up to offer help to disadvantaged children.  Do you warm to the idea of the Big Society?  Well, here it is in action – with the Conservative Party on the wrong side of it.

Reports today suggest that Downing Street knows that it has dug itself into a hole, and must now start to dig itself out.  That would be best attempted by finding a plan that’s better than Labour’s (or Marcus Rashford’s) communicating it, implementing it – and then campaigning for it.

Fortunately, there is one to hand.  If you think about it, schools are not the right venue for delivering help to poorer children during the holidays – for the obvious reason that, by definition, they are then closed.  And the exceptional circumstances of the spring lockdown are now, we all hope, behind us.

Nor do vouchers guarantee “healthy, tasty and nutritious food and drink”, to quote from Government guidelines – which, in the case of food, is better delivered hot.  These are best provided in a formal setting.  Which is precisely the aim of the Holiday Activities and Food Programme which we mentioned earlier.

This is a £9 million programme in its second year of pilots.  This summer, it supported up to 50,000 disadvantaged children across 17 local authority areas at a cost of some £9 million – providing at least four weeks of free activities and healthy food during July and August 2020.

The speech of last week’s debate came from Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Clevelys (Blackpool itself, by the way, has eight of the ten most deprived areas in England).  “My view is that we need a national and universal summer holiday activity and food support stream to deal with the trials that have occurred,” he said.

Maynard is not alone in understanding the issues: see Alan Mak’s work, for example, on Magic Breakfast. But he was right to suggest that the pilots have been too slow.  As he said, the issue “is the ultimate example in politics of where something must be done. That is very different from saying that anything should be done”.

Exactly so, and two different groups of people ought to read his speech with special care.  The first are Ministers, the Downing Street apparatus, the Treasury – and a handful of backbenchers.  There is no more matter more primal than food – and getting fed, especially if one is going hungry.

This debacle is a fearful warning to Boris Johnson, Downing Street, the Government and CCHQ: in all things, let alone any matter so emotive, one needs a policy, a message – and the capacity to campaign on it.  In each of these areas, they have been found wanting.

They will have to raise their game on continuing the Universal Credit uplift, and responding to the second part of Henry Dimbleby’s report on food strategy.  Why didn’t they, in this case?  Perhaps because, amidst all the focus on the Just About Managings, they are missing a point: social justice matters in the former Red Wall, too.

The second group of people concerned are the Rashford campaigners.  Some Tories complain about the footballer.  We aren’t joining them.  After all, if it wasn’t for him, we might well not be writing this morning about the issues he has highlighted.

But he should surely see that vouchers, dispersed to parents in a mass of homes, are not a substitute for nutritious meals, delivered to children who are gathered together in a formal setting – just as in term-time.  If Ministers offer such a programme on a bigger scale, he should jump at the chance to embrace it.

Frances Lasok: This pandemic has shown the Conservatives need a local community focus

24 Sep

Frances Lasok is a political campaign manager for local elections.

What are the challenges for the first post-COVID elections, what will we stand for, and what should our strategy be?

The beginning of the pandemic was defined by civic unity. Roadside banners went up to the NHS, and we suddenly became a society that asked after our neighbours. But then came the after-effects. An end to the political ceasefire, plummeting GDP, a doubling of reported symptoms of depression, the beginnings of the long-term effects of economic decline, increased isolation and post-furlough job losses. People will rally round in a crisis; it’s as we move out of it that the uncertainty hits.

As the governing party, it leaves us in a difficult place: elected on a manifesto less than a year old where the biggest challenge was Brexit. And as Theresa May proved, it isn’t enough to just promise competent government or more-of-the-same small-c conservativism. Boris rallied the country on “Get Brexit Done” but since then the world turned upside down, leaving the levelling up agenda as the philosophical drive behind the Conservative Party.

It’s relevant. But for it to be more than words, it needs local engagement and local co-operation: a united drive between Government and the bodies at the coal face rather than, as is often the case, good ideas from the centre killed by falling into a gap between multiple overlapping authorities with different agendas, motives or political stripes. The potential gap between idea and implementation is huge. Which brings us on to the first post-COVID elections, in 2021.

The stakes are high, higher than just political capital, because the seats up are the major players: the County, unitary, and combined authorities that will hold the purse strings and implementation responsibilities for huge swathes of the Government’s post-COVID agenda: schools, social care, economic development and transport. Many of these seats were last up in May 2017, the record high for Theresa May’s Conservatives. In a good year, simply holding what we’ve got would be a high bar to clear.

So, what do we say in the first post COVID elections? Looking back to the Queen’s Speech in October 2019, what’s striking is how many themes of the pre-COVID agenda – community, social care, small business, towns – have been driven to the forefront thanks to the pandemic. And many of these ideas knit together: one of the biggest barriers to levelling up is dying town centres. Off the back of the Taylor Review, the proposed Employment Bill was highlighting flexible working and use of technology to increase productivity. Whilst Eat Out to Help Out gave the “use it or lose it” message about local businesses, flexible working means there are people who now have the time and money to get lunch at a local café or stop for essentials in a local shop, rather than a 5am rise for a £30 train then home for 8pm and order online. These points on the national agenda have knock-on effects to the local: small business, levelling up towns, greener transport.

There’s been a surprising return of an old friend in the last few months: the Big Society. Isolation and loneliness, and the knock-on effects to social care and mental health, have been on the backburner for years. The COVID mutual aid groups that sprung up across the country were an organic network of community minded people who wanted to help others, had the ability, and saw the need. They were often made up of the demographic of 30s-50s or younger, professionals, working parents that local initiatives often struggle to engage. When it comes to community, logistics matter. Influenced by Roger Scruton’s Building Better Building Beautiful initiative, in refreshingly plain English the Planning Reform White Paper said this:

“Planning matters. Where we live has a measurable effect on our physical and mental health: on how much we walk, on how many neighbours we know or how tense we feel on the daily journey to work or school.”

Policy and technology affect community. Someone commuting 6am-8pm is not likely to get involved with local initiatives. Technology is a friend that could change the face of the voluntary sector and local government entirely, making it possible for someone to fit in Council around the school run or a 4pm meeting. The Conservative Party should seize on this – and if we don’t, the Greens and the Lib Dems will – because these are the people we need running councils.

It’s helpful because another challenge will be socially distanced recruitment. Campaigners across the country will have breathed a quiet sigh of relief at the prospect of no more rubber chicken dinners. But humans are social creatures and whilst the opportunity for members to have Zoom calls with the Chancellor is fantastic, the remote nature means that the local MP doesn’t meet the new joiners.

The same will be true of campaigning, with social distancing currently means no canvassing. The alternatives to knock-every-door data collection are post (expensive and only a proportion will answer) or demographic targeting. Targeting is not yet perfect and carries risks. But it’s ideally suited for the local elections where only an engaged minority are going to vote. And long-term, the next battle around the corner is for Generation Z. Already, they are the hardest to reach using traditional methods: more likely to live in HMOs or difficult-to-access flats, less likely to read snail mail, more likely to move frequently which affects the data we can manually gather, less likely to engage locally, more likely to engage online. The challenge isn’t just their hearts and minds, but reaching their ears and eyes. If we’re forced away from traditional methods of engagement in 2021, it’s a learning curve for what “normal” will be in twenty years.

After a crisis, any incumbent party is dealt a difficult hand. The temptation is to fight a rear-guard action piecemeal, but we don’t need to do that. Capitalism adapts and we are the party of innovation and opportunity. The solutions we need across the board – on communities, planning, transport, localism, mental health – link together into an achievable local manifesto with the levelling up agenda and compassionate Conservativism at its heart, deliverable in a way that has local communities at the centre. And these are questions that we have to ask and answer now because when we face a shaken and worried electorate in nine months’ time, we need to know what we will say; how we will say it; and what, as Conservatives, we stand for.

Dinah Glover: Why I’m standing for Vice President of the National Convention – and why it matters.

17 Aug

Dinah Glover is Chairman of London East Area Conservatives and of Bethnal Green and Bow Conservative Association.

Listening to a dedicated and well tuned-in Party activist the other day, I was struck by something he said. Despite his activity, he had barely heard of the National Convention and its officers, let alone what they did. It is highly probable that many of you reading this now would be in the same position. That, to me, signals a problem.

So what is happening? The National Convention is made up of all the association chairmen and other area, regional and CWO officers across the country. Every year they get to elect a chairman, president and three vice presidents. These people sit on the Party board and can have a significant impact on the Party. But still barely half of the electorate participates in the election. This is local association chairmen remember, not disinterested voters. So why is this?

In my view this is down to a fundamental disconnect between the officers and the voluntary Party. Tom Spiller (former president) provided a very powerful insight recently when he said that it did not really know what it is for. We need to be clear about what the National Convention represents and that is why I am standing.

Politics for me has always been about democracy from the grassroots up. It is so important we empower our members so they are enthused to help us build a better future for our local communities. It was, after all, the idea behind David Cameron’s Big Society.

I am standing on a platform calling for empowerment, transparency, accountability and democracy. Not for its own sake, but because this allows greater engagement by all and will deliver a political offering that is even more attractive to the public. Look at what was delivered last December when we were in tune with people. The breakthrough in the Red Wall seats was because we were in touch with what voters wanted. We connected.

The Party needs to provide more engagement for its members. When it does it succeeds. We saw this in action last year when we had an unusual opportunity for the members to choose the next Prime Minister of the UK. The Party managed a fantastic nationwide leadership contest with packed out hustings held around the country. That was a credit to Andrew Sharpe and CCHQ. It was thanks to the two excellent candidates that we had an intelligent and respectful debate that really engaged the members and opened up genuine discussion. This demonstrates what can be achieved when the members are involved. I wonder why we can’t do similar for the National Convention? With this in mind I will host a zoom Q&A for those interested.

I want to serve on the board of the National Convention because I believe in this Party; it runs through my very veins. We have so many talented activists and I am not sure we always use them to their best advantage. I believe every process should be measured in terms of whether it is empowering, accountable, democratic and transparent for members and associations.

Certain processes do need to change and be improved. We should have consultation periods from the ground up through associations to seek their ideas. Ultimately the board has to decide – we can’t function by committee, but we need to be open to ideas.

There are several CCHQ committees that need to be opened up to have a two-way conversation. I would like to see members of these committees reporting to the regions. Why not have the regions voting for their own representatives on these committees, which would mean there is a ready made communication channel?

I do not want to fix what is not broken and I know the team under Sharpe’s leadership have been making improvements where they can but much more needs to be done. If we fail to make this change then that disconnect will impact on our ability to deliver for our new and old voters. That is why I want to play my part to ensure that does not happen. So if you have a vote, please use it and please vote for me.