Saturday, July 31, 2010

Rule By Failed Rock Star

Al finally makes it into the Merseybeats

BOM's old friend Rockin' Al Johnson has finally made the big-time. He's got his own rock show on the BBC. Even better, you're paying for it.

OK, it's called Alan Johnson: Failed Rock Star, but at least he's up there in the limelight, grooving alongside such all-time greats as the Merseybeats (pic). And as he cheerfully admits, if only he'd made it first time around back in the swingin' 60s, he need never have settled for politics to get the attention he craves.

And he's not the only one - from Bliar down, stacks of NuLab's ministers went into politics only after they'd bombed as rock gods. Even now, given half a chance to join the Merseybeats, most would drop their current has-been minister jobs like a shot.

Tyler was reminded of this on Wednesday afternoon strolling along a sunlit side-street in Westminster. Coming the other way were the Blues Brothers - stylish sunglasses, linen suits, hand clappin, foot stompin, funky-butt ... podgy. Obviously they were jive talkin', but as they passed, Tyler managed to catch a word. It began with eff and ended in ucking. At which point Tyler recognised disgraced Brown spinner Charles Whelan and disgraced Brown enforcer Nick Brown, making their way back from some lunchtime gig in a karaoke bar.

The thing is, rule by failed rock star turned out to be a great gig for those doing the ruling, but not quite so great for rest of us. If only Al had made it in the 60s, he need never have ended up floundering around as Home Secretary, or "at the helm" of the NHS or our social security system.

The man now at the helm of our nightmarish £200bn pa social security system is most assuredly not the rock star type. The one time he tried his hand in showbiz, his performance was devastatingly mocked by one critic as "the Walmington-on-Sea amateur dramatic society does Henry V". There's no way he'll ever be invited to join the Merseys.

Yet, as we saw once again yesterday, this self-styled Quiet Man of British politics is actually the one who looks like finally gripping the crippling inconsistencies and contradictions at the heart of our welfare system.

The most difficult question there, of course, is the one we blogged several times last week (eg here and here), and the one we investigated for the TPA's new paper Welfare reform in tough fiscal times. How do we make sure work pays for the near 6m working-age poor who currently depend entirely on welfare? And even more difficult, how do we do it now that the failed rock stars have blown all the bread?

As IDS spelled out once again in yesterday's consulation paper, after 60 years of our gargantuan welfare state, Britain's workless poor face a welfare trap of life-mangling proportions.

The paper contains the following chart, showing how the trap works for a couple with a single earner on the Minimum Wage, and two children. The family can certainly increase its net income (vertical axis) as the earner works more hours (horizontal axis), but only by a horribly small amount (ignore all the various bands in the chart - they simply show how the various benefits taper away as the family's own earnings increase: focus on the top line which shows how net income increases as hours of work increase):

This means "that someone at the National Minimum Wage would be less than £7 per week better off if they worked [up to]16 extra hours and earned an extra £92 (an effective wage rate of 44p per hour)". It also means that he faces "a Marginal Deduction Rate of 95.5 per cent on earnings between £126 and £218".

As the report puts it, "a system that produces this result cannot be right".

So what's to be done? The report offers three possible approaches:
  1. A Universal Credit - all existing benefits abolished and combined into one simple to understand and administer universal benefit.
  2. A Single Unified Taper - retains the existing range of individual benefits but "withdrawal would be through a taper that would be applied to their overall benefit eligibility, rather than the individual benefits as is currently the case".
  3. Single benefit/negative income tax model - as recommended by the TPA (marking the very first time ever a TPA policy proposal has been explicitly picked up in an official government publication - hurrah!)
We can only welcome IDS's boldness and give him every support.

True, his paper does not mention the other key aspect of the TPA proposal - ie the need to fund these reforms by lowering the poverty line - but we can work on that.

The main thing is that after all the opportunities wasted by those wannabe rock stars, we finally have a government that has the guts not only to think the unthinkable, but also to do it.

We hope.

PS So who is ultimately responsible for the fact that we ended up being ruled by fourth rate rock stars? Fundamentally you've got to blame these guys:

Their intoxicating combination of teen beat and cocking a snook at authority changed the world for people like Rockin' Al. As he says "everything changed and changed forever at the dawn of civilisation - the arrival of The Beatles... I used to try to model myself on Paul McCartney." No wonder he ended up in Bliar's government.

And while we're on the subject, Mrs T has been scouring the darkest recesses of the Tyler attic (filthy dirty, covered in cobwebs... but she's good with the kids). As we've certainly mentioned before, at about the time J Lennon was asking the Queen Mum to rattle her jewelry on live TV, Mrs T was bunking off school to visit the Fab Four in their Surrey mansions. In those days, it was nothing for 13 year old convent girls of a certain disposition to bunk off, hitch a ride, and knock on George Harrison's front door. And Mrs T has the snaps to prove it. Well, that is, she has the snaps somewhere. But unlike the granny who's flogging hers next week, Mrs T hasn't found a single one. Bah!


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