Labour leader Ed Miliband launched a heavily-trailed new report this morning produced by Labour’s favourite thinktank the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) called “The Condition of Britain”. It has been said that it’s a report that will “define social democracy in the coming decade” and that it is “a Magna Carta for social democracy in the 21st century“. I think some people are too easily impressed.
The report (all 280 pages of it), contains 28 recommendations, which Labour seems to be largely adopting as party policy. The recommendation that caught the headlines was the one recommending scrapping benefits for 18-21 year olds, and replacing them with a means-tested “youth allowance”. This is so similar to Tory Party policy that George Osborne’s bitch Matt Hancock accused Labour of stealing their policy. Reading through the other recommendations though, it’s striking just how unambitious they are. Nothing is a great departure from the current direction of travel, and any of them could be adopted as Tory or Lib Dem policies without any eyebrows being raised.
Why is this? The IPPR label themselves as “centre-left”, and Labour should be looking for some eye-catching policies to differentiate themselves from the opposition. I think the problem is one of GIGO, or “garbage in, garbage out”. The underlying assumption before the report was even written was that austerity is a given, there is no money and every new commitment must be matched by a cut or tax hike elsewhere. So they paint themselves into a box and then say to themselves “within these constraints we have arbitrarily imposed on ourselves, what can we suggest to be different from the other lot? Answer: not very much it seems!
It seems to me that if they actually want to make a difference, the starting point needs to be “what would we like to do in an ideal world”, and work back from there. So in an ideal world, we might like to build everyone a mansion. Unfortunately, there is not enough land, building materials or labour to achieve that, but there may be enough of those things to ensure eveyone can live in decent accomodation at an affordable price. So what’s the IPPR’s recommendation on housing?
£Councils should be able to retain and reinvest a share of any savings achieved by local action to reduce housing benefit spending in their area. In addition to their existing powers, they should also be given greater freedom to borrow responsibly against their housing assets and income.”
We have quite a convoluted suggestion where somehow it is worked out a council has “saved” on housing benefit through their actions, and they can then use some of these savings to build houses, or they can borrow money to do the same. I’m not sure we should be encouraging councils to borrow more. They can go bust, and won’t be able to borrow at as low rates as central government (who can always borrow at 0% should they wish). Implicit is the IPPR’s recommendation is that there is enough land, labour and materials to build enough houses. If that’s so, wouldn’t a better suggestion be that central government just gives the money to build housing directly to local councils? Why over-complicate things?
Similar criticisms can be levelled at other recommendations. If you start with garbage assertions about the inevitability of austerity, the solutions you come up with are bound to be severely limited. It just makes Labour look a bit, well pointless.