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The Policy Ask with Alfie Stirling: “It’s all about trying to fail in the most successful way possible”

The economist on energy tariffs, reforming benefits and why drastic action is needed to rebuild society.

By Spotlight

Alfie Stirling is the director of research and chief economist at the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a think tank that focuses on social, economic and environmental justice. He joined the organisation in 2018, initially as head of economics, after spending the previous four years working as a senior economist at IPPR, a progressive think tank that promotes and publishes research on economics, social and political sciences

How do you start your working day? 

With some combination of toast/cereal (anything I can get my one-and-half-year-old to also eat), BBC Radio Four and nursery drop-off. Some days there’s an early morning broadcast interview, or I need to share some “lines” with producers on the day’s economic news, but otherwise I’m just finding room to open a laptop on a Brighton-London commuter train. 

What has been your career high? 

Recent highs have included helping to redesign the government’s Job Support Scheme during Covid-19, and the NEF’s role being recognised at the time in the newspapers; influencing flagship opposition policies at different party conferences; and representing the NEF on TV shows including Newsnight and Good Morning Britain.  

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?  

Balancing work with being a new parent – and trying to avoid doing a poor job of each – has definitely been the most challenging. But I routinely find many aspects of the role challenging. When you work for a small charity with stretching ambitions, most of the time it’s all about trying to fail in the most successful way possible.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be? 

Prioritise working on things you enjoy, with people you can learn from.

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[See also: What’s causing HS2’s endless downgrades and delays?]

Which political figure inspires you, and why?

Margaret Thatcher. Bear with me. I think the things she did, and believed in, were a disaster. But she achieved a deliberate shift in politics and economics in this country in a way few others have. Rebuilding an economy in service of a thriving society, and meeting new challenges such as environmental catastrophe, will require at least as big a shift again.

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What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

It’s not possible to get policy “right”, society is too complicated. Even just thinking it’s “job done” can be part of the problem. Though far from perfect, the most important interventions recently have been policies such as furlough and the Energy Price Guarantee, where the government used its power to absorb greater economic shock, so families had to absorb less.

What policy should the UK government scrap?  

From the most recent Autumn Statement, it’s the £36bn in further cuts to public services and investment. Deliberately impoverishing the public realm has been a key feature of UK policy for more than a decade, which means we also know how it ends: stagnant earnings growth, threadbare safety nets and stalling life expectancy.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to? 

I hope that the Windsor framework can lower tensions and improve lives in Northern Ireland. Preserving peaceful politics comes first, particularly when it may not be a given.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?  

California has what’s called a “rising block tariff” for household energy consumption. A version of this for the UK could see free or subsidised energy for all households up to a certain level of usage, with a higher price on excess consumption above this. It would lower bills for the poorest households most of all, and incentivise richer families to improve energy efficiency. 

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?  

A guarantee that no one can see their monthly income fall below a liveable minimum, as called for now by a growing and politically diverse set of organisations, including the NEF, Trussell Trust, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Bright Blue. This would be delivered through a mixture of new and reformed social security payments.

[See also: Key policy moments of 2022]