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Power, Brexit, gender, tech

Michael Jacobs, Carys Roberts

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‘The care crisis is an economic issue’

Carys Roberts interviewed by James Stafford, Lise Butler and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite

Welfare and education

Lise Butler: The aim of the IPPR’s Commission is ‘Economic Justice’. But the report makes clear that it is not concerned with the welfare system, including more radical proposals like Universal Basic Income. Can the Commission on Economic Justice (CEJ) really live up to its aims without discussing the welfare system?

Carys Roberts: At the beginning of the project the CEJ had to define the scope of its investigation. It became apparent quite quickly that economic justice could become quite an imperial ambition across all policy areas, so early on we decided that welfare would be beyond the scope of the Commission. This was also a political decision. Faced with the question of whether we could get a group of more than twenty diverse commissioners to agree on something radical, we felt confident that we could get broad support for a radical economic agenda, but not for a radical welfare agenda. That’s partly where that came from.

That said, what the report does do, which is quite surprising and quite pleasing, is broaden out the scope of economic policy to include a broad commitment to: the funding of child and social care; increasing taxes to properly fund public services; policies that shift norms about who does unpaid work; support for use it or lose it paternity leave; and reducing working time, from the perspective of addressing the care crisis. It’s a big victory to have business leaders and union leaders coming together to say that these are economic issues.

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite: I thought it was striking that education is not mentioned very much. Where do you perceive education as sitting within a model of society and the economy?

CR: In the 1990s this was the big agenda. Education was going to deliver equality of opportunity, which was going to deliver huge social mobility and everyone was going to be better off. But that this isn’t what panned out. There are more graduates than ever before but that hasn’t amounted to more social mobility. Lots of them are worse off than before.

We wanted to shift the emphasis from the supply side to how we create the demand for skills. The UK has had a huge supply of skills both from abroad and domestically, but doesn’t seem to be translating those into better productivity and better outcomes. So instead we focused on industrial strategy and regional rebalancing, rather than skills and education.

There are a couple of exceptions. We argue in our industrial strategy paper for the apprenticeship levy to be broadened out into a skills levy, so that it can be used for a broader range of things, and also to focus on retraining for people affected by automation, in recognition of the huge transitional costs for those people. We did also do some research that isn’t in the final report about the role of education, but in the end it wasn’t part of our overall narrative.

FSB: There’s also an interesting focus on business education. There’s quite a lot of discussion about how bad it is in Britain compared to a lot of other countries, and the suggestion that it would be good if we did more, not just at MBA level, but also at a slightly lower tier.

CR: We propose a new body as part of the industrial strategy, particularly to help SMEs, who are the least likely to have seen productivity improvements. Obviously that’s partly a question of technology adoption – and that’s another thing that we think needs to be pushed through industrial strategy bodies – but it is also a question about management practices.

One third of UK firms haven’t seen any productivity increases since 2000. The problem with productivity isn’t at the top end, it’s in the long tail of low productivity firms. And it also has a big gender element. The way we talk about gender and industrial strategy is often implicit rather than explicit, but our work is in part motivated by a recognition that low-paid sectors are dominated by women and have the lowest productivity increases. It shouldn’t be regarded as given that you can’t have productivity improvements in retail, care and all the sectors that women work in.

Only for the workers?

LB: One of the critiques of the post-war Attlee settlement was the extent to which the Beveridge Report was premised on the assumption of full (and, at the time, largely male) employment. The CEJ is similarly focused on how workers gain more economic power. Should left-wing economic reform focus so much on work and workers?

CR: Workers are extremely important stakeholders in the wealth that they produce, and shifting returns from the people who are currently profiting to workers is a good thing. It’s not necessarily the best way to decrease inequality across society, but it is a way to give people their just deserts.

There are endless debates about whether the labour share of income is declining, but we do know that it is lower than it used to be, and there are trends – technological change and especially the rise of platform companies – which risk further decreasing the labour share of wealth. This necessitates looking at capital income.

If we spread capital not just to workers but to people who are not workers then you can start to reduce inequality. The natural extension of the inclusive ownership funds policy would be a citizens’ wealth fund, which we propose in the report. If you have an asset-based Citizen’s Wealth Fund in which everyone in society has a stake, then you get much closer to a model of redistribution which doesn’t only redistribute to workers.

James Stafford: Does the idea of a Citizen’s Wealth Fund not tie you to the underlying power of capital, and assume a certain stability in terms of growth and profits?

CR: One of the reasons the report did not recommend a Universal Basic Income (UBI) based on a Citizens Wealth Fund, and instead recommend one-off dividends, is that we don’t think a wealth fund should replace welfare. Welfare is counter-cyclical; the state does it well. The dividends we recommend would be a bonus, so that when huge profits are being generated, they are shared more broadly within society.

Having a sovereign wealth fund does not imply that the wealth it generates will be fairly distributed. That has to be ensured by building the institutions democratically from the outset, and making sure that the returns aren’t all extracted and absorbed by wealth fund managers.

Care, time and relationships

FSB: The report does seem to come out against the very idea of a UBI, in its assertion that unemployment is bad for people’s sense of self and long-term mental health.

CR: I personally do think that doing nothing is bad for most people’s mental health, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘unemployment’ is bad, if people are engaged in other activities that could be useful and meaningful. The politics of a major commission coming out and saying that unemployment is good would not be viewed well: we feel that this is a topic that needs to be talked about sensitively. The way to deal with it is to say that work does give people meaning, but we should be talking about how to reduce working hours to give people more time for other meaningful parts of their lives as well.

LB: Is it possible to properly acknowledge or address care work through economic policy or through other forms of welfare policy?

CR: My ideal would be that there is universal care for anyone who wants it. Obviously when a care worker goes and visits someone, they’re providing human contact, but it’s quite a transactional relation. To me that isn’t sufficient. Even in an ideal world state-provided care is still a service.

It’s also important that family members can spend time together. The work that Helen Hester is doing on communal living, and the kind of opportunities it provides to share care responsibilities and resources is very interesting. Could we extend that to care for older people as well? But in an ideal world that would all have to be optional: we don’t want to compel anyone to spend time with their families if they don’t want to.

On a related point: the debate about reducing working time is frequently framed in terms of availability for care work. But it should be completely valid to want to have free time to do nothing, have leisure time and actually relax. Having fun is a valid desire!

In the medium term wages for care work is unlikely. But if you share care work then the negative effects are likely to be minimised. Taking time out to care has a massive impact on women’s careers, women’s salaries. If you reduce that, this harm will be reduced.

JS: Is there a risk that the structures of care are just devolved to the domestic sphere? Aren’t there ethical tensions in encouraging and incentivising people to take on more care work?

CR: We wouldn’t want to assume that families are going to take up the slack. There’s been an increase in the need for care, and there are different sources for addressing that. The IPPR have previously proposed free personal care – trying to expand the universal coverage of social care. But people do want to care for their families. Caring doesn’t have to be purely mechanical: it might mean spending more time with a lonely relative.

LB: Do you think the kind of ideas coming out of the CEJ and other circles have the potential to unite some of the more idealistic, humanistic, ethical ideas that have been floating around Blue Labour circles, like love and civic virtue, with a more concrete policy agenda that the left can get behind?

CR: It doesn’t come from a Blue Labour perspective, but the report does seek to question what the economy is for and put that into mainstream debate. It’s also shaped by the participation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. There’s a long footnote somewhere in the report about the Catholic conception of the common good. Welby wanted to talk about the economy in a substantive way which connects people’s emotional lives and their material lives.

If I was to self-critique the report, I’m not entirely sure we follow through on the idea of a more humanistic vision of the economy, even though we talk about reducing working time and supporting the family. I think there’s more work we can do to deepen that aspect.

The things that we say build on the IPPR’s catalogue of work in this area, which argues that to resolve the current care crisis we’re facing, you have to make time for people to care, alongside supportive social services. But when you design those things you have to do it so that men take their share. It was important to me that use it or lose it paternity leave got into the report. The natural follow-on from that would be looking at carer’s leave, or disability social care.

In the first part of the report, there’s a big section about the economy we want and what the economy is for. The economy isn’t an end in itself; it’s a means to have a high standard of living, with time for caring and relationships.

The CEJ report talks about love, which is unusual for an economic policy report.

Lise Butler is a lecturer in History at City, University of London and a Commissioning Editor for Renewal.

Michael Jacobs was Director of the IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice and is now professor at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) at the University of Sheffield.

Carys Roberts is Senior Economist at the IPPR and co-editor of the IPPR Progressive Review.

James Stafford is Postdoctoral Researcher in World Politics at Bielefeld University and co-editor of Renewal.

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite is a Lecturer in History at UCL and co-editor of Renewal.

Longer versions of these interviews are available on Renewal’s blog, at uk/blog/.

Download or buy the IPPR’s report and explore a range of accompanying policy papers here:

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