by Peter Watt
If the economy is the central battleground of the next election then welfare reform looks like being one of the other key areas for the political combatants. The chancellor’s Autumn statement made it pretty clear that he intends to make it a key wedge issue over the coming years. And to make sure that we all got this, the Tories have released an online attack ad on the websites of local newspapers in marginal seats.
Click on the ad and you are asked your views on welfare reform by the Conservative party. Labour reacted with its own marginal seats campaign complete with outrage at the demonization of the poor and attempts to divide and rule between artificial notions of “strivers” and “scroungers”.
So both parties see the next election being about the cost of living; both see strategic weaknesses in the others approaches to those working on low to modest incomes and both now have drawn a line in the sand – the proposed below inflation 1% rise in most working age welfare benefits.
For the Tories this will help create a “welfare system based on fairness’” as the campaign leaflet to accompany their online ad makes clear:
“Our welfare bill has grown out of control with the something for nothing culture that Labour created costing the taxpayer billions. Cutting this bill is vital to cutting the deficit and living within our means. At the same time we are reforming the welfare system to make sure it is based on fairness and encourages people into work.”
And for Labour, the below inflation rise in working age welfare benefits is an attack on the working poor as Ed Miliband made clear at a recent PMQ’s:
“Despite the impression given by the chancellor of the exchequer, over 60% of those affected are in work…It’s the factory worker on the night shift, it’s the carer who looks after elderly people around the clock and it’s the cleaner who cleans the chancellor’s office while his curtains are still drawn and he’s still in bed. The chancellor calls them scroungers; what does the prime minister call them?”
So who will win out for the hearts and minds of the “strivers”? Only time will tell but many in Labour have gone into overdrive at what they see as the unfairness, meanness and immorality of the Tory approach.
For them, this is seen as typical Tory fare – bashing the poor at every opportunity and treating them as second class citizens. Reports that families suspected of wasting their benefits may be given smart cards instead of cash is seen as another example of this approach. And there is certainly a danger for the Tories that they are charcaterised as prioritising the very wealthy over those reliant on working benefits.
But Labour also has a weakness that goes beyond some voters’ suspicion that the party feels warmer towards those on benefits than those who work: in general, Labour does actually have a blind spot to the fact that there really are some people who are poor and who really are “scroungers”. And worse, that this small group of people who abuse the welfare system gives everyone else a bad name, makes life more difficult for others and any defence of the welfare system harder.
Because Labour finds it so difficult to acknowledge this, it magnifies the impact on public consciousness of the “scroungers” attack and further undermines Labour’s credibility on the issue welfare.
Rightly, for many years there has been a concerted effort to leave the Victorian notion of the “deserving and undeserving poor” behind. Poverty is so much more complex than that, as the work of organisations like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have shown.
But it’s important to remember that for most non –political combatants, the notion that there are in fact “deserving and undeserving poor” is not controversial. And if anything, as budgets are squeezed at home and in government, this seems to becoming an even more entrenched view
Put simply, if you are working more hours for less pay at the same time as your bills are going up, and you think that others are better off than you choosing not to work, then you are likely to react badly!
Ed Miliband is wrong; if you are in that 60% of those who will be impacted by the 1% rise in working age benefits and who are working, then you are just as likely to be hacked off about this as anyone.
In fact, quite possibly more so.
But the mood music from most on the Labour side appears simply not to accept this. And this despite many voters blaming Labour for encouraging this abuse of welfare in the first place. Labour is seen as having presided over a benefits system that has created perverse incentives for some people not to work or to get pregnant as a teenager.
This is where the Tories may have stolen a strategic march. Not just that they have forced Labour to vote against the proposed below inflation welfare rate rise. But because they have an approach that seems to meet the voters halfway on the issue of who is to blame for poverty. They are talking about people’s responsibilities, the importance of work and a clear recognition that there are some who choose to milk the system and who will be dealt with.
So for instance, most people think spending your benefits on drugs and booze is wrong. Any system that means that someone who has been, no longer can, therefor makes perfect sense.
If Labour really wants to defend the welfare system then the party needs to recognise this. Because I strongly suspect that most working people on low to middle incomes, whether in receipt of benefits or not, do.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party