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ORTON Michael

Michael Orton is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Warwick and a Compass Associate.

Amidst continued difficulties shaking off the ‘Nasty Party’ tag – reform of the Employment Support Allowance being the latest cause of highly personal social media attacks on Conservative MPs – it is easy to forget that the term ‘social security’ was first coined by Quintin Hogg and as The Good Right says: “It is not enough for the very poor to be lifted out of absolute poverty as Adam Smith himself understood. A generous rather than minimalistic safety-net for those who can’t help themselves should never be an after thought…It must be a prized duty”.

These points are, however, attracting attention in a new report published not by a Conservative source but by left-leaning think tank, Compass. The report, Secure and Free, takes as its starting-point concern with social and economic insecurity, noting that the Conservative Party’s 2015 election manifesto was called A brighter, more secure future, and that security has been a continuing Government theme since last May.

Consensus and compromise are terms that have seemingly fallen out of fashion, but the report argues that with insecurity affecting not just those on the margins but reaching up the social ladder and increasingly affecting the middle classes (think of young professionals priced out of the housing market with erratic earnings in the growing gig economy; or parents who feel comfortable themselves but worry about the future that faces their children despite the very best efforts they make) mean that the issue is one that attracts broad-based concern and requires equally broad-based solutions.

So rather than taking a predictable left-wing view, the report emphasises consensus-building. This begins by focusing on the identification of practical, concrete steps to redress insecurity, adopting what is described as a ‘both-and’ rather than ‘either-or’ approach. This means rejecting either-or ideological starting points such as that security is best offered either by free markets, or that a small state or capitalism are themselves the cause of insecurity – and that security can only be achieved by its overthrow. The fetishising of the state, markets, family and so on is avoided and, instead, recognition is given to a role for the public and private, the collective and the individual, the financial and the relational, the state and civil society and communities and families.

The work was based on a process of engagement with civil society groups, but ensuring that account was taken of ideas from organisations and individuals representing a very wide range of political traditions. Thus, the right-leaning Centre for Social Justice, Civitas, Bright Blue and The Good Right are cited alongside progressives such as the Fabian Society, Friends of the Earth and so on. The Daily Telegraph’s James Kirkup is quoted together with the The Guardian‘s Polly Toynbee. Seeking to build consensus also meant an extensive review of material from across the political spectrum and a major consultation exercise at draft stage.

This might sound like a recipe for an anodyne lowest common denominator or a mushy fudge of apple pie and motherhood intent and vacuous content, but that has not proved to be the case. The report rejects promises of silver bullets and novelty, favouring the less glamorous but absolutely critical business of laying solid foundations. The solutions tackle key causes of insecurity focusing on good jobs, decent incomes, secure and affordable housing and the best start in life for our children and grandchildren – with belonging as an interwoven theme. Each proposed solution offers substantive improvement in itself, supported by the detail in the many civil publications upon which it draws.

These “Five plus” solutions (i.e. five substantive points and a number of additions) – and where they originated – are as follows.

  • ‘Above inflation increases [in the national minimum wage level] should become the norm in periods of economic growth until there is an indication of a negative impact on employment’ (Centre for Social Justice) + ‘make improving productivity and improving the quality of employment mutually reinforcing policy objectives’ (Smith Institute).
  • ‘A Harold Macmillan-sized, state-supported housebuilding programme… designed to the highest environmental standards’ (The Good Right) + improve ‘security for home-owners through… a “right to sell” and a “right to stay”, so that those who can no longer meet mortgage repayments can sell their properties but remain as tenants paying fair rents’ (Friends of the Earth) + ‘curb future rent growth and improve security for tenants’ (Civitas);
  • ‘Unleash the power of the social sector’ (Centre for Social Justice) + implement non-financial help for families and relationship support (various);
  • Make Early Childhood Education and Care a specific and distinct element of the universal care and education system, free at the point of delivery (various) + ‘significant real increases to child benefit’ (Fabian Society and Sir Tony Atkinson); and –
  • Given the current lack of consensus about how to provide a decent basic standard of living, Compass offers to work with other civil society groups on building agreement around a shift from welfare for some to social security for all right through to older age.  Many social actors from across the political spectrum commented that democratic renewal is a necessary condition for change – so relevant additional ideas are put forward on PR, devolution of power from Westminster to the rest of the country and votes for 16 year olds.

The report’s launch reflected the consensus-building approach. Hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty, the event was attended by politicians from the all three main Westminster parties (Conservative, SNP and Labour), plus a diverse range of civil society groups. Rather than being presented as a standard report, the merits of which are to be extolled and then forgotten as the next project commences, emphasis continued to be placed on consensus-building, developing and improving the identified solutions.

Those who see solutions to insecurity as being solely achievable through free markets, the state, the family, or other singularly hegemonic means, may not be persuaded. But those willing to venture beyond individual ideological certainties and engage in pragmatic consensus building to achieve desirable change, are warmly invited to join that process by answering the following two questions. First, which of the Five- plus ideas do you agree with? (Even if you only agree with one of them, that is an important first step in building consensus)? Second, if there are ideas you don’t agree with, what better suggestions can you make?

Responses are greatly welcomed by posting a comment below or emailing michael.orton@warwick.ac.uk.

The research drawn upon in the report is generously funded by the Webb Memorial Trust and published by Compass.

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