by Jonathan Todd
Labour debating the Conservatives on welfare is not a clash between two settled bodies of opinion. As public opinion evolves, so does internal debate within both parties. Casualties will come from “friendly fire” and the fog of war is thick.
There are those within Labour who think that George Osborne has snookered our party with the welfare uprating bill. In contrast, others think Osborne has overplayed his hand and we will be rewarded for principled opposition to the bill.
The latter are in sympathy with the rhetorical question of John Harris: If every Labour politician cannot oppose Osborne’s strivers and skivers plan in its toxic entirety, what exactly are they here for?
The former both dismiss this as naive and discount the capacity of the more nuanced opposition that Gavin Kelly has articulated and which Labour’s guarantee of a job for those out of work for 2 years is a variant of.
This guarantee seems a step away from the Harris position, which rejects absolutely the welfare uprating bill, and towards a position that argues the bill is unnecessary as there are better means of reforming our welfare system. Taking this step has the advantage of reducing the extent to which we seem to defend a discredited status quo. Equally, it will disappoint those attracted to a more visceral rebuttal of Osborne.
While there is diversity of opinion within Labour, it would be mistaken to think that the Conservatives are united. Indeed, they are at war, if a Peter Oborne piece from just before Christmas is to be believed. Soon after Christmas a cabinet minister was speaking in less than glowing terms about Iain Duncan-Smith’s universal credit. “The information technology for the new system is nowhere near ready. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”
Politics, according to Winston Churchill, is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And various racing certainties are relevant here. The cabinet minister is right about universal credit: it will be an administrative catastrophe. This will reflect badly on the competence of the government in general and Duncan-Smith in particular, which will fortify Osborne over Duncan-Smith in the Conservative welfare war. The chancellor probably also takes it as a racing certainty that the long-term decline in support for welfare will continue, further strengthening him as it does.
There are those on the left who point to recent TUC research and argue that this decline is based upon confusion about what welfare entails. The electorate thinks, as Frances O’Grady, the TUC General Secretary, observes “the system is much more generous than it is in reality, is riddled with fraud and is heavily skewed towards helping the unemployed, who they think are far more likely to stay on the dole than is actually the case”.
It certainly suits Osborne that these myths persist. Declining support for welfare, though, long predates his elevation to high office. It seems difficult, therefore, to wholly attribute this decline to Osborne’s campaigning. This should caution Labour against a position that seems to have us defend the status quo, even if this is a status quo in which the prevailing misconceptions are exploded.
The public do not have a firm grasp on what the welfare system currently involves but the essentials of what they think welfare should mean may not be desperately complicated. Support for those who have earned and need it, alongside a lack of support for those who do not. This means the contributory principle and an absence of fraud. It also means a greater willingness to support the pensioner who has paid national insurance throughout their working lives, rather than the working age person with no physical or mental barriers to work.
Demographic change will give us ever more pensioners. Paying for working age people to not work reduces resources available to support these pensioners. Maximising our working age population in employment is not about demonising the poor or showing how tough Labour is. It is common sense that Labour should mean work, which some system of job guarantees was always likely to form part of.
It is also apparent that it would be better for Labour to lead debates, as oppose to respond to government initiatives. Labour’s proposal on job guarantees is welcome. Yet, no matter what we insist, it seems like a reaction to the bill. It would have been preferable for our commitment to guarantees to have preceded the bill.
Having a limited number of policy commitments brings the risk that when the government announce new policy, any subsequent policy from us seems rushed and reactive. And a further racing certainty is that Osborne will extract whatever advantage he can from this issue.
Politics is not only knowing what will happen, of course, but also acting accordingly. This means getting ahead of further Osborne attacks by advocating the kind of reform package advanced by Kelly. This advocacy will need to come from us loud, clear and consistently to overcome what the government’s script shall say about us on welfare at every opportunity.
We should not cease remaking ourselves as the party of work, as the Conservative attempt to have us be the party of welfare will be relentless.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist