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Meet
Gordon Brown, the pre-1997 model. You might have preferred him back then, and
for a very simple reason: he was not a politician who saw more public spending
as the solution to everything. This was evident in his commitment to Ken Clarke’s
spending plans, but it was there, too, in his opposition to universal benefits.
As Tom Bower’s biography of the man explains, he had been heavily influenced by
Bill Clinton’s election campaign and particularly by one of its central maxims,
“We want to offer a hand-up, not a hand-out.” Mr Bower writes, “Brown was
leaning towards ‘incentives’ and the cessation of universal benefits. In short,
he was becoming attracted to means tests, which he had formerly vociferously
opposed.”      

Just
wonder what the country would look like now if this model of Brown had
persisted into Government. But, sadly, it didn’t. The reach of the benefits
system wasn’t merely maintained under his rule from the Treasury and then
Number 10, it was extended. New benefits, such as the Winter Fuel Payment,
ended up going towards the well-off. Tax credits were pumped into the bank
accounts of the middle-classes, a transaction that created more and more
disincentives to work. And social security spending increased by a fifth, even
before The Great Crash took hold. Universalism had truly gone universal.

Yet
what’s even sadder is that this second, post-1997 model of Gordon Brown lours
over our politics still. Indeed, over the past week, Labour have made it their
primary cause to defend in-work benefits from cuts. And while the Tories are
the ones implementing those cuts, they are also protecting other sectors of the
Brown universe, such as the free bus passes and TV licences for pensioners. Even
during the austerity years, hand-outs for the have-lots remain in fashion.


We
don’t really need to ask why this is so. The parties will talk of principles and
refer to fiscal spreadsheets, but much of it comes down to electoral arithmetic.
The Conservative and Labour leaderships want voters, and they’re prepared to
use bribes to secure ‘em. This is how it’s been since the dawn of politics. But
rarely has such bribery been so central to the political debate. Whereas the
last election was largely about the overall parameters of deficit reduction, it
looks as though 2015 will have a tighter focus on benefit spending. Do you want
it? Or do you not?

This
Brown-inspired bribery does considerable harm. For the sake of votes, politicians
aren’t willing to consider all the options available for cutting the deficit.
They ring-fence according to their — rather than the public finances’ — net
benefit.

But
might it also inflict self-harm too, on the politicians themselves? Take the
Conservatives. They have made some very persuasive arguments in favour of their
benefit and tax credit cuts. As David Cameron put it during PMQs in October, “I
do not see why those on the Opposition Front Bench should go on collecting
their child benefit when we are having to make so many other difficult
decisions.” As he put it last week, “I think that the right thing to do is to
cut the taxes of people who are in work, rather than taking more in taxes and
then redistributing it through tax credits.” Yet similar arguments also apply
to those universal benefits that the government is refusing to cut. It’s the
sort of thing that can look inconsistent, at best; cynical, at worst.

Political
bribery is also a form of segregation. Voting groups are identified and catered
for, while the burden of deficit reduction is imposed on others. This raises
questions about fairness, which is the main reason why Nick Clegg is sensibly
advocating further cuts to universal benefits. But it also has electoral implications.
For generations now, politicians have neglected young people, in favour of old
people, because young people are less likely to vote. And while this might make
sense when it comes to winning tomorrow’s election, it’s always seemed a myopic
approach to me. If the parties gave young people — and others — something to vote for, then
surely the votes would come. There are great untapped reserves of enthusiasm
out there.

It
would certainly help if the tax and benefits system could be depoliticised. True, politics could never be removed from the equation entirely, but there
are ways to diminish its more tawdry effects. Something like this was detailed in
an important
report
from the Centre for Social Justice, earlier this year. It talked of measuring
the effectiveness of policies by their “social value”, and — tellingly — its
first recommendation was that the Government articulate the “most important
outcomes” that they are trying to deliver. Are benefits there to get the
unemployed into work? Are they to reward people for years of completing their
tax returns? Too often, politicians say one thing and do another, or just say
lots and lots of things. A framework for policy decisions could bring about
some consistency.  

And
who knows? With such a framework established, it might even be possible to task
a cross-party commission with looking at how the welfare state can be properly balanced against the demands of deficit reduction and of an ageing, growing population.
Gordon Brown could even make a good chairperson for it — so long, of course, as
it’s the pre-1997 model.

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