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What to make of the IPPR report

The IPPR’s Condition of Britain report was released today in a morning meeting in Shoreditch, London’s prime source of pretentious coffee, East Asian cuisine and graphic designers. The crowd of journalists, MPs and third sector types looked somewhat out of place amid the hipster graffiti; but the report was deemed influential enough coax Westminster dwellers out of their usual haunts and into unfamiliar territory.

The prize, of course, was witnessing Labour leader Ed Miliband’s response to the IPPR’s recommendations, and we’ll come to that in a minute. For now, though, I’m more interested in IPPR Director Nick Pearce’s speech in which he mused over how political parties can deliver public services at a time of “fiscal realism.” Is this the new term for austerity, I wonder? If it is, I think we can claim game set match for the Tories on that particular argument right now. Of course it’s somewhat unrealistic to expect Labour to run on a no cuts platform after nigh on four years of accepting the coalition narrative over spending cuts, but for the record, there are still quite a lot of world-renowned economists who think austerity is a terrible idea. Moreover, the way the current government has been metering out austerity – i.e. by merrily slashing away at the benefits bill – is going to make very little difference to the national finances. Indeed Labour’s own press release triumphantly announced that one of its responses to the IPPR’s recommendations – means testing benefits for 18-21 year olds – would save the public purse £65m. That’s a bit like saying you’re going to solve a sub-Saharan drought by emptying a cup of water onto the cracked soil.

To Labour then, who used the report to unveil plans to end out-of-work benefits for roughly 100,000 18- to 21-year-olds and replace them with a less costly means-tested payment dependent on training. Labour sees this as a move to place equal value on vocational and academic routes; the press, and many on the left, saw it as a punitive measure against young people. To be fair to Labour, I think the announcement is more progressive than the spin it was given in the media – but perhaps a right-wing slant was to be expected when the press release linked the move quite explicitly to saving money.

The report itself was interesting with some good recommendations. I particularly liked its ideas around restorative justice and tackling the causes of crime early on, as well as its suggestions around family – paid time off for fathers to attend antenatal classes, better paternity leave and greater access to relationship counselling. But in my mind the whole thing felt a little like tinkering. Largely positive tinkering (with the exception of freezing child benefit), and perhaps more significant tinkering than the tinkering that has come before – but tinkering nonetheless. There was no discussion of what the overarching vision is: what is a state, what does it do, and for whose benefit? Perhaps that’s why the recommendations focused largely on the people in the middle. The report had very few things to say about an ever-wealthier superrich and an ever-poorer poor. In its austerity programme, the government has been successful in reordering the public’s expectations of what a state is for. In my opinion, progressives should be doing the same. That’s a report I’d like to read.

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