The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition has drawn parallels with the election to the same post fourteen years ago of a certain Iain Duncan Smith. As the voluntary sector in particular determines how to manage its policy work over the coming years, this is a curious parallel which is worth exploring.
This exploration will show that Mr Duncan Smith’s policies will be pursued, whether or not he himself retains office. Any uncertainty there is will arise from economics, not politics – but it is hardly likely to favour the Left. This all adds up to this autumn being the best time to seek a compromise on welfare and spending for Northern Ireland.
It was already the case that the general sentiment at Westminster in response to the Conservatives’ surprise outright victory in May was not only that they now have a working majority, but also that it was highly likely they would go on to win the 2020 election too. It is this, more than anything, which explains the rise of Mr Corbyn. His supporters will wax lyrical about him and his policy stances – but few will seriously argue he would win a General Election. Essentially, the Labour Party has decided that if it is going to lose the next election, it may as well do so from the comfort of the left lane rather than competing with the traffic in the centre.
The challenge for policy officers and others is to distinguish between what they want to happen on one hand, and what they think will happen on the other. The latter should lead them to conclude that it is in fact Mr Duncan Smith who will probably have the greater say on public policy in the coming years – possibly until well after Mr Corbyn has been deposed (possibly pre-election, just as he was).
Mr Duncan Smith’s personal role in future is, however, perhaps harder to predict that Mr Corbyn’s. Mid-term, an attempt was made, thought to be led by George Osborne, to remove him from the welfare brief. He retained it then, and through the May election, partly because he does have significant allies on the back benches. However, it is no certainty that he will survive to 2020.
In the summer after the 2010 General Election Philippa Stroud, the Director of the Centre for Social Justice (the think tank Mr Duncan Smith founded after he lost the Leadership, and the source of around 80% of the policy research behind his welfare reform programme), was appointed Special Adviser at the Department for Work and Pensions to work alongside Mr Duncan Smith as Secretary of State. In the summer after this year’s election the think tank’s Director, Christian Guy, was also appointed Special Adviser – but this time directly to the Prime Minister.
This is surely interesting, but it is not yet quite clear why! It could be read as a full expression of support for Mr Duncan Smith’s programme, for the think tank he founded, and for him personally. However, it could also mean the opposite: this could be preparation for the maintenance of the welfare reform programme, directed from the top, without him. Although there is no particular political reason to remove him, a series of blunders (most notably the ludicrous use in August of made-up quotes and actors to promote the merit of sanctions) are beginning to render him toxic even to potential supporters of reform in general.
One thing is clear, however. The Conservatives regard their victory – the first time an incumbent Prime Minister had gained ground both in terms of seats and vote since 1895 – as a mandate to continue their programme of “tackling the deficit” (or “austerity” as some label it) while “reforming welfare” (or “cutting benefits”). They are probably right to. Even though this seems an anathema to those in certain echo chambers, reforming welfare is generally a very popular policy (including in Northern Ireland).
Politically, there is no realistic hope for a change of course – making resolution of the welfare/budget crisis in Northern Ireland extremely difficult. All political and economic things being equal, the Conservatives will simply increase their majority in 2020 as Labour implodes and England moves further to the low-tax right in response to Scotland apparently moving to the high-spending left (entirely in line with what happened in similar circumstances in recent decades in Canada and Belgium, lest anyone doubt it).
Of course, all economic things are not, in fact, equal. The relative prosperity of the years up to 2007, and again (at least in most of the UK) since around 2013, has primarily been based not on who was in government, but on the astonishing growth of China, and resulting low product prices. With that growth slowing, economic turbulence is likely by the end of the decade – and that inevitably also means political unpredictability. However, lest opponents of “austerity” and “benefits cuts” think this a good thing, the tendency is for people to shift further right to protect what they have when there is less to go around (after all, this explains the Centre Left’s generally poor performance across Europe since 2008).
Therefore, for us in Northern Ireland, the time to seek compromise on welfare and spending is surely now.
On welfare, it remains the case that certain forms of “mitigation” are on the table (policies such as the “Bedroom Tax” by no means command universal support even among the Conservative back benches). On spending, there remain significant potential flexibilities (though they require some recognition of the political reality that the Treasury’s room for manoeuvre will be limited for as long as Northern Ireland’s household taxes remain significant lower and giveaways such as concessionary fares significantly more generous).
Civic Society, particularly the Third Sector perhaps, needs to consider what it can best do to recognise the likely political context of the second half of the decade, and what it can then do to influence better outcomes immediately. In other words, it is time to make the most of a crisis.