What Natalie could have said on Sunday night

Last Sunday Natalie Bennett was on Radio 4, the Westminster Hour, on welfare benefits. First, I must say how impressive Natalie is under fire. This was Carolyn Quinn’s opening salvo:

“The Green Party website says you would pay a benefit called the Citizens’ Income to every citizen regardless of whether they are in work. It says:

“with no jobcentre to hound them they could be more choosy about the work they do. If they have a guaranteed safety net and no compulsion they will be less likely to settle for low wages in unpleasant jobs.”

It seem that the Green Party is saying if you don’t want to work we will give you an income anyway and you can stay in bed most mornings.”

Natalie was ready for this with a creditable ‘damage limitation’ strategy. She deftly sidestepped what should be central to the debate as ‘a long term aspiration’. She then gave as effective a reply as was possible without using the Citizens’ Income.

Here is what Natalie could have said:

George Osborne thinks all claimants are doing that now. The Citizens’ Income works on the principle that persuasion is better than force. It creates a work incentive. Let me draw your attention to Dynamic Benefits, the report commissioned by Iain Duncan Smith and published in 2009. It forms the basis for his so-called welfare reforms. Its main proposal is the Universal Credit, which is an emaciated version of a Citizens’ Income. Dynamic Benefits begins with a devastating critique of means testing. It explains, giving numerous detailed examples, that the withdrawal of means tested benefits is exactly the same as a tax for the person losing a benefit. This creates a massive work disincentive for anyone on a small income. On pages 88 and 162 there are graphs showing that due to benefit withdrawal, single parents in part time work for example lose a larger part of their income clawed back in tax or tax equivalent than bankers on bonuses.

Carolyn Quinn [actually said]:

So you don’t think the welfare budget needs to be cut?

NB:

There is a strong body of evidence that the austerity strategy is counter-productive, but the deficit is a separate issue from the need to correct this serious flaw in the welfare system. The first part of ‘Dynamic Benefits’ could be cut and pasted under the heading ‘The Case for a Citizens’ Income’. It would be fiscally neutral, neither cutting nor adding to the real tax bill.

CQ [actually said the first sentence]:

63% of people in a YouGov poll in the Sunday Times today said that the benefits system was not strict enough and too open to fraud. I don’t see how your Citizens’ Income addresses that concern.

NB:

Surprisingly, there are only a few hundred families who have reacted to means testing in the way the public thinks large numbers have, and Osborne says has happened, but it is a perverse incentive. A Citizens’ Income creates a work incentive even when jobs are scarce. Because the Universal Credit is woefully inadequate, it has to be combined with compulsory workfare which is not just unnecessarily harsh, it is absolutely barmy with 50 or more applicants for every job in some areas.

CQ [actually said]:

That wouldn’t bring you in tune with the public. In the last few decades there has been a steep fall in support for more spending on benefits. Even in recent years when unemployment has risen, the British Social Attitudes Survey shows this on a wide range of issues. It is striking that support for extra spending on Unemployment Benefit remains remarkably low despite unemployment having reached its highest level since the question was first asked in1998. So you are putting forward a policy which is opposed by most people.

NB:

The main problem is that means testing has been an unrecognized, serious flaw ever since the Beveridge Report was implemented in 1945. That does need putting right, and Iain Duncan Smith claims to be doing that. Dynamic Benefits is not a Green Party publication, it is the basis of the government’s strategy. But they have been allowed to get away with a clever obfuscation of what is really needed in response to the problem the report reveals. Instead, we have the sheer cruelty of this attack on the most vulnerable. The Labour opposition have slavishly accepted the government’s agenda of combining a debt crisis caused by rich people with an excuse to cut benefits to the poor, and sections of the press are helping the government to get away with it.

Carolyn Quinn would no doubt stop Natalie at this point, but the foregoing would have been a useful start. Further points could be made as the opportunity arose. A possible exchange could have gone like this:

CQ:

If the Citizens’ Income is such a good idea, and the problem has existed as you say for 60 years, how come it has never been suggested before? I can think of one good reason – it would entail a massive increase in taxation. Are there any costings available?

NB:

As I have just explained, a massive disguised tax is being paid now by the lowest paid – the least able to bear it. All the Citizens’ Income does is shift this burden upwards. It has been put forward before. Lady Rhys Williams, a member of the Beveridge Commission wrote a minority report recommending a Basic Income in 1944, having identified in advance what Dynamic Benefits now describes in detail. There are Citizens’, or Basic Income movements in Britain, Europe, and world wide: BIEN, and an intriguingly similar scheme exists in, of all places, Alaska – the Permanent Dividend Fund. All these can be Googled. Costings can come once the principle is understood. The immediate need here and now is to expose Iain Duncan Smith’s answer to means testing as crass and wrong headed.

For the record, here are the links to the sources just mentioned.

http://www.citizensincome.org/

http://basicincome2013.eu

http://www.basicincome.org/bien/

http://us.macmillan.com/alaskaspermanentfunddividend/KarlWiderquist

When Natalie is given the opportunity for a more in-depth interview, two major points which she can make are on disability and the Bedroom Tax. The work disincentive caused by means testing creates a ’knock-on’ incentive to claim to be disabled, so they too must be compelled to join the 50 able bodied already desperately competing for every job. The Bedroom Tax is the straightforward dishonest abolition of a benefit – it will only work because there is nowhere to downsize to. The Citizens’ Income will give everyone a standard accommodation allowance. Whether your home is a cardboard box or a castle, you get the same. In time, market forces would eventually adjust to this without putting landlords in the driving seat. This would lead naturally to the question of costings.

Jeremy Paxman:

But the cost of that would be gigantic! Is the Green Party mad?

Natalie:

No, this is just one of the more extreme consequences of means testing. The first thing that needs to happen is for the general public to grasp the sheer enormity of the hidden tax paid by those whose Housing Benefit has just been withdrawn, I don’t think a fair minded public will defend such an injustice.

Paxo:

[More typical derision]

Natalie:

Look, I’ll meet you head on, but don’t interrupt till I say you can, OK? The absolute minimum Citizens’ Income will consist as follows: £71 per week JobSeekers Allowance, Rent (may have to be different locally), say £74p.w., and a further £25 per week if the £9,440 Personal Tax Allowance is shared fairly. At present it benefits the highest tax bracket far more than the low paid it is supposed to help. So that comes to £170p.w. If you then have a flat tax at 50% – let’s keep it simple -, the break even point is only £340 per week -£18,000 per annum. Everybody below £340 is better off, and those on really high incomes pay many times what the Citizens’ Income is worth. The details won’t be exactly like that, but the principle is that those on a low income should not be losing  a bigger proportion of it than the better off. Read Dynamic Benefits.

We always knew that the first time we put our heads over the parapet on this issue we would meet this kind of barrage. But ‘not yet’ has now gone on for 40 years and counting. In the long term, the Citizens’ Income, or something better which serves its intended purpose of allowing a recession to be viewed with equanimity, is essential to saving a planet habitable by future generations. But the Citizens’ Income principle is directly relevant and vital now to the welfare benefits debate. Natalie does read my blogs, but she does not yet appear to be taking me seriously. She does not, for example appear to have read Dynamic Benefits (2009)

http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk

as she promised me she would. But she will get more opportunities. She demonstrated last Sunday night that she is a strong swimmer. She needs pushing off the diving board.

Advertisements

7 responses to “What Natalie could have said on Sunday night

  1. Well Clive you asked for it so, at risk of teaching you to suck eggs, here it is:

    I agree that we need to get this out there five years ago but here’s the rub, what you think is going to come across as a good argument is going to go right over a good many people’s heads. Most people haven’t had any real political education and most of us that have gained it from our parents. I’ve spent a lot of time explaining to some very right-thinking people why what may seem intuitive to them isn’t necessarily so.

    People aren’t born with critical thinking skills or the instinct to find out the facts for themselves and I’ve seen this exploited to the point that someone will write a post stating that their claims are backed up by a link when it does no such thing with the idea that people will believe the posting of the link itself and not check. People believe that the BBC has to be honest and that the press cannot outright lie. People believe many things under the banner of common sense which defy all logic.

    Maybe you know all of this, but it bears repeating for context.

    It’s not enough to try to introduce the CI as one broad overarching topic. In the same way a research paper references what came before it, the foundational aspects of the policy need to be brought to the fore as well. Don’t just reference Dynamic Benefits, bring it up as a subject in its own right with an attack on means-testing as something worth attacking in its own right. There also needs to be a many-angled attack on what is the rhetoric driving the views that are contrary to progress; not only the mistaken beliefs about people on benefits or the language used but the ongoing beliefs that many hold as to how people would behave with such a system in place.

    Having read a basic synopsis of your book (try not to hate me for this) I’m presuming you’d also want to see a better understanding of how GDP mismeasures economic activity and how even a shrinkage of GDP could be beneficial for society if wealth was redistributed properly. Again this deserves an entire debate of its own.

    These all need to be separate areas with their own detailed examinations, not to precede discussion of CI but to support it.

    Following this, we need to test the waters a lot before finding what arguments will actually work. Natalie may have stumbled, maybe failed to get the point across as succinctly as possible but we don’t really know what would have worked and so long as she keeps coming back and pushing in different ways, finding what people respond to and finding better counters to her opponents that’s the only real way to make progress on this issue. Sometimes it’s a tack of rephrasing an answer or asking the question behind the question, breaking down the false face-value.

    The problem you’ve got is that to get this message across you’ve got to not only explain things clearly, but also break down a lifetime of rigorously built up beliefs that will reject such an argument out of hand which is not unlike the challenge a psychologist faces when treating a severely depressed patient or deprogramming a brainwashed cult victim.

    • Thanks Paul. I welcome all advice, including how to suck eggs, but you’re right. Your analysis is identical to mine. Except for what to do about it.
      Skewed intuition and perverse common sense etc.Absolutely. But people will sometimes latch on to new ideas that they would never have thought of themselves. Now could be such a time. Must we leave the field clear to fear mongers?
      Don’t just reference Dynamic Benefits; don’t concentrate on CI (etc.)
      See my blog post on 28.12.12. I do concentrate on means testing. I put the link in every post because I want as many as possible to read that part of Dynamic Benefits. No mention of CI there.
      GDP doesn’t get a full debate in my book, but its inadequacies are discussed.
      The problem is multi-faceted, but we have to start somewhere. Natalie is not just ‘coming back and pushing in different ways’. She is pointedly avoiding the CI. Like you, she fully agrees with the CI – in private. I am only bright enough to see two strategic options. The first is to avoid the CI because of all the things you mention. The other is to start somewhere, but when?. You suggest 5 years ago. CH Douglas put forward a similar scheme 90 years ago. Lady Rhys Williams tried to get it put in the Beveridge Report 70 years ago, and I put it in the first GP Manifesto 40 years ago. Briefly, it would be easiest to introduce when it is least needed – it was never mentioned, during such periods – and hardest when as now IT IS DESPERATELY NEEDED. There will never be a right time. Please, just re-tweet the idea.

      • Starting at the end, 5 years was just a number I plucked out of the air, like when you say you need something done yesterday. I’ve not been following you for long so I’ve probably missed a few things but what I was saying was not about holding back but about campaigning on all the related issues as well. Certainly people are receptive to new ideas that they may have not thought of but at the same time there needs to be a lot of building up of the supporting theory including broader economics.

        So maybe GDP won’t need as extensive and lengthy an explanation but it’s worth focussing on a little if only as part of a broader analysis. It’s not only useful in supporting alternative ways of looking at supporting our lives but the more ways in which the current economic system is shown to be damaging the more it weakens arguments based on the idea that it works.

        What I was trying to say is that we can’t only promote CI alone as standing alone it’s going to be a harder sell than is necessary, what’s needed is a broader campaign promoting healthier alternatives to many aspects of the economy, alternatives which will also help CI make sense in people’s minds.

        Just as one example of others using this tack (less honestly), you may have noticed during the recent cold that the Independent, alone, has been running stories casting doubt on the energy security of Gas, the gas supply, running a story about a ship reaching port with supplies that would have taken weeks as though it were an emergency delivery, claiming that the Met Office had forecast more of this throughout April (I checked the forecast for the next week which was… fuzzy).

        Longer term observers of the Independent may have spotted that they’re not above printing pieces on Nuclear energy which, when run through a search engine, appear identical to press releases from the Nuclear lobby.

        It’s negative campaigning of the kind designed to sow doubt about an energy source other than nuclear so that when people hear that we need nuclear because ‘alternative supplies aren’t reliable enough’ there’ll be a ring of the truth to it for them.

        I’m not recommending such underhanded methods, but it does demonstrate the linkage that if you’ve spent time demonstrating a concept you rely on outside of your central explanation as well as inside then it’s more readily accepted. There’s a danger that by focussing to much on the central point, that the point itself will be lost.

  2. Thanks again Paul. If you read my blog – 29 posts so far, you will see that to begin with I did more or less as you suggest. But what bothers me now is that Caroline and Natalie in their wisdom, despite both agreeing with me in private, refuse to touch the subject with a barge pole. What subject?
    MEANS TESTING. MEANS TESTING. MEANS TESTING. The subject which Iain Duncan Smith’s report (no link this time) explains with devastating clarity. But any help you can give on presenting the wider picture will be welcome. The CI will emerge inexorably as the natural answer, but instead of the government strategy being revealed as both misguided and nasty, IDS is getting away with using the fact of MEANS TESTING as a justification for it.

    • Great post Clive. It’s refreshing to see a perspective on welfare that doesn’t merely consist of “they’re all cheating the system” but as Paul rightly points out not many people have the political knowledge and simply believe what they’re told. I think that it’s an uphill task to change people’s minds on welfare because it has been drilled into them by right-wing media outlets that every person who receives benefit is doing so because they’re lazy and work shy. The simple fact is that there’s just not enough jobs to go round at this moment in time. Cutting from the ‘have nots’ is not a miraculous solution to the deficit problem – osbourne’s plan A (his only plan!) has failed. But this is a main stay of Tory policy: cut from those who have the least. It’s not as straightforward as ‘labour is to blame for everything we must reverse their damage’ and it is naive to think that. Just as it is naive to think Labour entirely blameless. It’s an interesting idea that was proposed in the interview and one that on the face of it makes sense and above all seems fair. The difficulty would not necessarily be getting it to work but changing people’s attitudes – the party that does that is the one that often wins elections.

      • Thanks Tash. To cut a long story short, I shall reply to you in my next blog post, which I am about to draft. Hits on my blog having dwindled to single figures, as long as they include Natalie, who promises to keep looking, and Caroline, who doesn’t, they remain worth while, but sticking to my original regular Friday no longer seems to matter.
        But the focus of my blog will be:
        The difficulty would not necessarily be getting it [the CI] to work but changing people’s attitudes – the party that does that is the one that often wins elections

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s