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Opinion

How will Labour’s parachuted candidate Torsten Bell make the transition from think tank boss to MP?

15 Jun 2024 8 minute read
Torsten Bell. Image The Resolution Foundation

Martin Shipton

If you want to know how unambitious Labour’s general election manifesto is, you only need to read a newly published book by one of its candidates.

A few weeks ago Torsten Bell was parachuted into Wales, where a panel of party officials awarded him the safe seat of Swansea West. He didn’t have to go through a full selection process because Labour strung out a disciplinary case to ensure the former MP, Geraint Davies, couldn’t stand again.

Previously head of policy at the Labour Party, Bell has, since 2015, been chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, a think tank which specialises in economic research, focussing on poverty and inequality.

He’s just published a book called Great Britain? How We Get Our Future Back – and I’ve just finished reading it. I thought it important to do so to understand more fully the ideas of a commentator I have respected for years, but also to compare his arguments in the book with the election manifesto he is obliged to support as a candidate.

I was a little wary, having already written about how he deleted some social media posts that must have embarrassed him. When election candidates delete historic posts, it’s usually because they have made some offensive comments that would put them in a bad light.

Tax-breaks

That certainly wasn’t so in Bell’s case. His deleted posts criticised tax-breaks given to those who invest in Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs), suggesting this favoured better-off savers at the expense of poorer members of the community who should be encouraged to save more.

Bell’s offence was that his criticism wasn’t in line with current Labour policy.

Why, I wondered, was he deleting posts from January 2023 immediately after being appointed the candidate for Swansea West? Did this indicate he was prepared to compromise or change his principles if they risked upsetting the party?

Nevertheless I kept an open mind as I started to read the book on Friday. The first chapters cover familiar territory, explaining the economic plight that Britain is in and pointing out the consequences for ordinary people. In one passage he states: “We have now lived with flatlining wages for the past 15 years. Worse, we have done so on the back of high inequality, lasting more than 30 years. This would be bad enough in normal times, but in recent years it has proved a disaster. And the troubles it brings go far beyond food-bank queues.

“Even something we generally celebrate – the increase in employment since 2008 – in part reflects people having to work more to compensate for the fact that they or their partners are earning less. Many more couples have now decided they will both have to earn, and many women have decided to work longer hours.

“Overall, we were working 2.2% more hours in 2019 than in 2007, while over the same period hours worked in France fell by 1.5%. This leaves a gaping gulf between how much we and the French work – per person we’re doing 18% more, not least by retiring far later.” Bell concludes: “Rising, shared prosperity is a central promise of democracies, and it is not a promise we are keeping.”

Diagnosis

Two further passages in the diagnosis section of the book are especially worth noting. Having outlined the degree to which many people feel alienated from mainstream politicians because of their failure to deliver improvements, Bell writes: “(Younger) voters’ faith in the system is fraying, and those that are more disadvantaged are turning away from voting. Staggeringly, only two in five 18-29 year-olds think it would be totally unacceptable for the UK to have a strongman leader who was above the law.

“In 2019, renting millennials were 28 percentage points less likely to vote than their home owning peers, while the turnout gap between millennial graduates and non-graduates was 25 percentage points. The danger? Not just disenfranchisement today. When people turn away from the ballot, including in countries such as Germany, we don’t like what sometimes entices them back: the far right.”

This, I fear, is what may be in store for Britain if a Starmer government fails to deliver the improvements people want.

Another passage seemed discordant. Having produced statistical evidence that Brexit was causing serious damage to the British economy, Bell, in a dismissively short manner, rejected the idea of rejoining the EU or even the single market and customs union: “(Swiftly rejoining the EU should not be seen as the magic bullet to transform our economic fortunes. In part, this reflects political reality.

“The leadership of neither main political party wants to reopen the issue, and the EU is unlikely to revisit the question until both Labour and the Conservatives are willing to consider it. No one wants Britain yo-yoing in and out with every change of government. More importantly, getting back to the pre-2016 world shouldn’t be anyone’s ambition. The average 18% productivity gap between the UK and France, Germany and the US is far more significant than the 4% GDP hit from Brexit … The UK had economic challenges before Brexit, and it can make progress in addressing them without being an EU member state.”

Change

In the second half of the book, Bell sets out detailed proposals for change in the areas of employment, housing, taxation and benefits.

He exposes the inadequacy of the fractured inspection regime that currently sees large numbers of workers exploited by unscrupulous employers who break the law by underpaying them and forcing them to work in poor conditions. Bell writes: “If we were remotely serious about labour market rules being enforced, then we would have a single enforcement body cracking down on problems such as bogus self-employment, so that workers could know where to look for help.

“It should be adequately resourced, doubling the number of inspectors from 900 to 1,800 to present a credible threat to dishonest firms. Powers to levy fines of up to four times the wages that have been missed out on (double what is currently possible for minimum wage breaches) would help cover the costs involved and also deter employers from playing fast and loose.”

To redress the shortage of housing, he suggests what amounts to a war on Nimbyism that would change planning law to help the private and public sectors get permission for housing development more easily, with central government having the power to remove planning from the responsibility of councils that refused to go along with the new policy.

Bell argues that income from whatever source should be taxed at the same rate, ending the current position where income from work is taxed at a higher rate than investment income.

He also advocates increases to welfare benefits, including scrapping the two-child benefit cap, which has led to a massive increase in child poverty.

He writes: “The goal of this appalling policy was to ensure that ‘families on benefits face the same financial choices about having children as families who are supporting themselves solely through work’ – implicitly meaning fewer births in bigger, poorer families. There’s little evidence it has had that effect … The limit must be abolished. Far from making families have fewer children, it has just made them far poorer. The costs involved in reinstating the lost benefit would be £2.5bn in 2024/25, but that is small compared with the damage being done: abolition of the limit would overnight lift half a million children out of poverty.”

Planning law

Labour’s manifesto promises changes to planning law in England as advocated by Bell, but does not specifically commit to depriving local authorities of the right to turn down planning applications.

There are, however, no commitments to crack down further on employers who break employment law, to equalise tax in the way advocated by Bell, to increase benefits significantly or to scrap the two-child benefit cap.

Torsten Bell is undoubtedly an expert on poverty and how to get people out of it. But it doesn’t seem that Labour under Starmer is prepared to go along with his ideas, notably in relation to the child benefit cap.

His book has nothing to say about Wales specifically – he seems far more interested in the bigger cities of England, especially Manchester and Birmingham. It’s been suggested that before being parachuted in to Swansea, he was being lined up for Diane Abbott’s seat in London. When, after huge amounts of negative publicity, Starmer and the NEC relented and let her stand after all, Bell needed another berth.

It’s a racing certainty that on July 4 he’ll be elected MP for Swansea West. Time will tell whether he takes an interest in the Welsh dimension of politics, and whether he makes an easy transition from a think tank where he can explore new ideas freely to the Westminster world, where decisions on what policies to support will be conveyed to him via the whips’ office.

Great Britain? How We Get Our Future Back by Torsten Bell is published by The Bodley Head at £20.


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Dai Rob
Dai Rob
28 days ago

Good review Ships….but I think I’ll give the book a swerve!

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
28 days ago

I expect the Universities will make him very welcome…

Ap Kenneth
Ap Kenneth
28 days ago

But was there any particular insight that was novel and not what lots of other people have been saying? Yes he was in a position to have a good grasp of the data available but interviews I have seen, such as on Politics Joe did not seem to me to mark this person as somebody extra special who had to be parachuted onto Wales.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
28 days ago
Reply to  Ap Kenneth

His visage suggests the chap thinks so…

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
28 days ago

The nearer the election gets the more authoritarian UK Labour becomes. Besides parachuting in their central office stooges alienating local party members, now today it’s been revealed that First Sinister Vaughan Gething is quite happy that Keir Starmer has reneged of the promise to give back Wales the power taken by Boris Johnson’s idocracy to administrator our once EU Structural Funding. Apparently we are now having shared powers not full control , meaning UK Labour like the Royal Mail Horizon system can remotely control the Senedd from London so overriding any decision made by the Welsh Government how, what &… Read more »

Fi yn unig
Fi yn unig
28 days ago

The would be Labour voters of Swansea West and Cardiff West really need to vote Plaid Cymru. It won’t stop Starmer getting in but it will send him the message that we in Wales are not prepared to be treated in this dreadful way.

Llyn
Llyn
28 days ago
Reply to  Fi yn unig

I would vote for Plaid in many parts of Wales but the reality is a vote for Plaid in Swansea and Cardiff West simply splits the progressive vote and let’s the Tories in. Let’s take Swansea West. In 2019 Plaid were 4th, over a thousand votes behind the Lib Dems. Tories were the clear opposition to Labour.

Llyn
Llyn
28 days ago

Perhaps it’s good that Labour has imposed a candidate in Swansea West. Remember the local party’s last choice for MP was suspended last year from the Labour Party amid accusations of “completely unacceptable behaviour”!

hdavies15
hdavies15
28 days ago
Reply to  Llyn

Are you suggesting that a suitable candidate, male or female, does not reside within the constituency ? The last guy was also a blow in having previously done his deeds in the S.E of England although a native of Cardiff. Maybe he only came back to Wales because his previous job got rubbed out.

Nia James
Nia James
28 days ago

Labour is giving Wales the massive two fingers, and it will get considerably worse. The only positive thing for Swansea West, if Bell gets in, is that he will be an invisible man in Abertawe as he will be fast tracked into the UK Labour Cabinet before he can say “Hyd o Yma”, or something like that.

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