Ed Milband is out of step with most voters on welfare reform

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

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18 Responses to “Ed Milband is out of step with most voters on welfare reform”

  1. Robert says:

    The polls suggest that the public are evenly split on the welfare issue. I strongly suspect that the line of both parties is close to what their supporters believe, so it will have little effect on how people vote.

  2. Rob the cripple says:

    I suspect in respect labour and the Tories are much closer on welfare, just waiting for ATOS to open concentration camps, whoops holiday camps dam I will get it right soon, working camps with gas central heating.

  3. Gareth says:

    So whats the answer then? I assume Ed should be harsher and say we will drive more people off benefits etc. So instead of Ian Lavery asking Cameron about constituents who’ve killed themselves due to losing their ESA he can ask Ed in the monday PLP meeting.

  4. e says:

    The Tories use trite notions of poverty. When did you first here about single young mums jumping housing waiting lists? I can tell you these surfaced 20 years or so ago, in line with what you might expect when social housing is sold and not replaced. How long have the layabout job shy been talked of? Again, a decades old concern, part of the landscape, post the mass unemployment of the ‘80s and the introduction of “flexibility” – as you know, I’m sure, it goes with the territory. Labour has a record of achievement with respect to dealing with these issues which counteracts the lie that welfare spending was, or is, out of control – surely you mean housing benefit to landlords is out of control, it’s not JSA levels that’s pushing up the bills.

    As you quite rightly indicate, the economy is the battleground. The only question for someone such as me, currently unemployed after 20+ years working, worrying about children’s and grandchildren’s future, is will there be an opposition to neo-con/neo-liberal economics to vote for.

  5. Kev says:

    ‘Ed Miliband is out of step with most voters on welfare reform’. Really? The latest ComRes poll which was published this morning has those in favour of the government cuts to benefits at 49% – and those opposed at 43%.
    This is hardly an emphatic show of support for government policy.
    What does: ‘… most people think spending your benefits on drugs and booze is wrong’ mean? What percentage of those in receipt of benefits actually behave in this manner – have you got any figures? Do you think that people should be told what to spend their benefits on? That is a rather nannyish approach.
    Also, what is the meaning of: ‘Any system that means that someone who has been, no longer can, therefor (sic) makes perfect sense.’?

  6. swatantra says:

    Another poignant article by Peter.
    Labour really has to come to terms with this ‘Benefit Culture’ thing. People out there don’t like the idea of some people getting something for nothing, while others work their fingers to the bone. It really is an anathema to them, and turns their stomachs.
    The problem is that the Public always percieve Labour as ‘supporting scroungers’ although that is patently untrue. Somehow it has to demonstrate that it is only on the side of the ‘strivers’, and come down heavily on the ‘skivers’. But it has always shied away from facing up to difficult decisions like this. Somehow, it has to demonstrate clearly that it is on the side of the ‘deserving poor’.

  7. Charlie Mansell says:

    Whilst Labour might be criticised by the Tories of expecting too little of those on benefits, in psychological terms the Tories are expecting too much at a time of high employment as resent research shows: http://www.tnr.com/article/environment-energy/89377/poverty-escape-psychology-self-control# Even worse the Tory campaign will not achieve their own welfare objectives from a behavioural perspective as it creates a defined ‘out-group’ that the Government’s own Behavioural Insight Team research says does not improve good behaviour: http://blogs.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/behavioural-insights-team/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Behavioural-Bulletin3.pdf A big issue is one of ‘proximity’, where ‘strivers’, whatever their politics, don’t visibly see bankers everyday but do see those whom they consider less deserving of their hard earned taxes. In the same way that there has been the creation of Health and Wellbeing Boards in each locality there needs to be local Employment and Benefits Boards for local government to take a much bigger role in the local work of the DWP so that people can see tangible local change in terms of the fairness of benefits delivery. This could be linked with early intervention and the recent successes around supporting family intervention in the most difficult situations: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/louise-casey-calls-for-family-intervention-approach where joining up support could save a lot of money for creating a stronger perception of fairness in each locality. Perhaps the recent City Deals around this might act as a template for a more comprehensive UK wide strategy. In terms of getting to a place where Labour can actually deliver such local change, it needs to build on its ‘one nation’ ‘responsibility’ narrative with a range of ‘responsibility deals’ not just aimed at those who are poorest but across the board in order to tangibly demonstrate a narrative of ‘one nation fairness’

  8. Rob Marchant says:

    A very well argued piece, as ever. And one other rather important point is that, as Dan Hodges pointed out yesterday, is that Labour is looking to raise real incomes for those on benefits while cutting them for public sector workers. Although the cuts for public sector workers have largely been agreed cross-party, we are now left in the position of cutting the incomes of those who work while raising those of those who do not. We are boxed in.

  9. Ex-Labour says:

    Labour has got themselves into a mess over welfare reform. The policy of opposing a 1% rise in benefits but supporting a 1% cap for the public sector is untenable. Dan Hodges article for The Telegraph outlines the arguement better than I can so please refer to this.

    Labour in defense of their stance are trying to move the arguement to the “working poor”, but I’m afraid most people believe that Labour is the scroungers friend and has abandoned traditional Labour voters and also the strivers, who they seem to despise.

    It was reported recently that 70% of people now see themselves as middle class, and this is a statistic that Labour should take note of. Research has shown that when people are in the voting booth, their main question is whats in it for me ? If this is true Labour are alienating a large percentage of people and that may yet come back to haunt them.

  10. Brian Moylan says:

    Poor will bear burden of Britain’s debt, Tory minister says
    Budget hits the poorest hardest, says IFS
    Benefit cuts to drive up child poverty

    I don’t think that the public wanted to see a Budget that “hits the poorest hardest” or agree with the Tory minister’s belief that it is right that the “Poor will bear burden of Britain’s debt”, or that “Benefit cuts will drive up child poverty”.

    Not in the UK that I live in anyway.

    Maybe a Daily Mail inspired focus group argued otherwise?

  11. john P Reid says:

    suprised there wasn’t more hostility to this article, but I’ve a feeling that labour uncut has only a small wing of the party reading it, Dan hodges has somed it up right for once,

  12. aragon says:

    John P Reid: It seems impolite to cause cognitive dissonance among the group think of the pseudo Tories. Don’t assume silence is agreement, It is more likely to be just contempt.

    The Unemployed represent 2% of the welfare bill and a single person gets £71 per week to cover food, electricity, water etc. in the case of energy inflation is 9% and food inflation 3.9% (Dec 2012)

    Benefits represent 15% of wages, benefits were continuously squeezed even when wages were rising. The only exception applies to children.


    “Offsetting the petrol price falls was a 3.9pc annual increase in the cost of food and non-alcoholic beverages. Much of the increase was accounted for by the rising prices of staples such as bread, cereals, fruit and vegetables, as challenging weather conditions suppressed crop yields throughout 2012.”

    Even Mr Micawber would agree that when on the breadline:

    “Annual income rise one percent, annual inflation two or three percent, result misery.”

    People on benefits do not have a buffer accrued in the good times, enjoyed by the employed (above inflation rises) as they have only had inflation increases, and benefits other than for children are set at a poverty level.

    But then don’t challenge the preconceptions of the Tories with whom you agree, just suggest they are poorly targeted. And even this unprincipled triangulation is questioned.

    And where are all the Jobs they should be going for, the part-time, self-employed, zero hour contracts flattering the current employment figures.

    Don’t let the evidence spoil a good demonizing the poor.

  13. Rob says:

    Swat mate working fingers to bones, lucky when you went for the local MP job the people thought nope sadly Swats got no fingers.

  14. Rob says:

    John Reid mate every day you prove more and more your a true blue Tory

  15. LesAbbey says:

    It’s a cheek really that the ‘New Labour’ wing of the party criticises ED Miliband’s attitude to welfare dependency. That there is Shameless TV program like problem in parts of the country with more than one generation growing up totally on benefits can not be argued against.

    But it was a problem created by our political class. Although the blame on how it came about can be laid at Thatcher’s door with her policy of de-industrialization especially in the north, ‘New Labour’ with 13 years in power didn’t change the situation. It needed the financial crisis to turn Gordon Brown into a Keynesian. If only he had changed ten years earlier maybe one generation could have been saved. That was when we need the equivalent of paying men to dig holes, although in a more intelligent manner of infrastructure development.

    That’s probably why the same old faces like Peter Watt side with the Tories over benefit cuts. They are partly to blame on where we are now and they still will not look at a FDR-like answer.

  16. Robert says:

    I am lucky enough to be in work on an above average salary, so a 1% rise in salary will not bother me and it is better than being made redundant. A below inflation rise when you are unemployed is far more serious. In any case, benefits have been rising slower than wages for most of the last 30 years.

    What Peter Watt and his cronies are forgetting is that millions of people have been unemployed at some point over the last 30 years. We don’t like being called skivers!

  17. Jane Young says:

    I don’t believe Labour don’t see the problem – if they don’t/didn’t, why did they implement the ESA and the biased WCA process which regularly tells very sick people they’re fit for work?

    Labour needs to take a much more sophisticated approach than either they or the Tories have taken with regard to out of work benefits, which is what all this is about. New Labour’s problem was in behaving like Tory-lite and thinking a simplistic test administered by poorly-trained ‘health care professionals’ employed by a large IT company was the answer to the fact that rather too many people were reliant on incapacity benefit over the long term.

    There are some people managing to live on benefits with no incentive to work;this will always be the case. But the way to tackle this is not nearly as simple as New Labour or the Tories like to think. Personalised, intensive help is much more likely to be effective than trying to starve people into work. The problem with using benefits policy to starve people to work is that it’s not sufficiently nuanced and individualised, so you end up with the system starving very sick people in the hope that they will miraculously get well and go to work. Since politicians and Jobcentre Plus are the least likely to be able to perform miracles, this is hardly a realistic policy.

    There is far too much stick and not nearly enough carrot in the system, and the Tories are just making this much worse. If you take basic support away from people when they can’t do what you want them to do, you will only create despair and anger. If you come alongside people and find ways to encourage them to better themselves, and bother to find out exactly why they can’t/won’t work, you’re much more likely to get a positive result.

    And the benefit card is a nightmare concept. Just think about it. You’ve got to create a system that all shops will buy into at no cost to themselves or to benefit claimants, enable the cards to be used online by sick & disabled people who can’t get to shops and ensure that the cheapest shops, especially, will accept the cards. Government and big IT projects – hasn’t proved a good combination until now, why would running a benefit card system going to prove any different?

  18. Mike Homfray says:

    Up to us to do more campaigning, then.

    If people want Tory policy, then they have the opportunity to vote for it by supporting the Tories

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