On welfare, Labour needs to be the party of work

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

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12 Responses to “On welfare, Labour needs to be the party of work”

  1. Ex-Labour says:

    ” The public do not have a firm grasp on what the welfare system currently involves ”

    What condensending and partonising bull.

    Perception is reality so they say and the perception by the public is that Labour has planted itself firmly in the skivers camp as opposed to strivers. Under previous Labour administrations the welfare bill ballooned and I witness fraud everyday of the week in my area by people who do not want to work, have no intention of looking for work and are happy to be parasites on society. Yet everytime someone even suggests having some sort of welfare to work initiative Labour activists and politicians are up in arms about it. So there is little wonder that the support for welfare is declining and Labour are seen as cheerleaders for ever increasing welfare spending. The combination can only be damaging to Labour and its about time party strategists woke up to this.

    What makes the perception worse is that Labour is also overplaying its hand with the constant attacks on the wealthy and multinationals, sometimes even blaming them for Labours own mistakes – not to mention the hypocritical millionaire socialists that do the shouting. Its begining to look like the politics of class, envy and hypocrasy – yet more preceptions Labour could do without.

  2. Amber Star says:

    Demographic change will give us ever more pensioners. Paying for working age people to not work reduces resources available to support these pensioners.
    We are not going to be supporting pensioners. The fixed age for retirement will be abolished & with it will go the state pension. Retirement will be when the firm you work for asks you to take retirement due to age; & there will be a minimum age at which they can ask you to leave, depending on what category of job you do. Many of us will be working until we are deaf, blind or demented before we are allowed to retire.

  3. swatantra says:

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with making an honest million. Not all millionaires are villans. Making money through honest endeavour and hard work is nothing to be ashamed of.
    And Labour need to bring out Policies periodically just to let the public know that the Opposition is alive and well and earning its money which the public generously gives to opposition Parties. No point in saving them all up for the GE. By that time the sands will definitely have shifted.

  4. e says:

    This debate is constrained by yesterday’s narrative justifying past welfare to work reforms like the future jobs fund. That Labour continues with a language that marks the unemployed as skivers in need of “help” to be “made fit for work”…again and doubtless as things stand, again and again, is deplorable. It damages while underpinning the coalitions contemptible, though clearly lucrative for some, workfare, and their counterproductive uprating bill.

    It’s time to move on. Today’s Labour should, with populist clarity, cover all the facts of the historical mess the coalition are pretending to grapple with.

    I don’t want your ‘charity’, I want a job, and failing a job (being surplus to the private sector requirements) the right to exchange x number of hours labour for the state, at minimum wage, for x £ of state ‘welfare’. A job guarantee; one that kicks in with immediacy, and pushes on a living wage for those in unsupported employment is little to ask. I’ve no doubt there’s a narrative that can show the positive costs/benefits.

    A jobs guarantee scheme is a principled alternative to the current ritual humiliation which destroys lives, adds to societies bills in too many ways to mention and has evidently allowed ignorant bigotry to flower….I agree with John Harris of course….but equally with those who recognise there are ways of reforming a system that has become dependent on growing amounts of welfare supporting corporate subsidies.

  5. Ian Stewart says:

    The thing is this is not some abstract political game. It is not Labour who lose if Ed drops the ball, but thousands of desperate people across the country. Lives will be blighted, futures ruined, possibly permanently. Whilst the village plays out some positional warfare, the class war is being prosecuted with vigour by one side. Maybe I am just old- I remember when Depardieu was French…

  6. Ex-Labour says:

    @ Ian Stewart

    The class war is being prosecuted by one side – Labour. They are retreating back to their old positions of many decades ago which “New” Labour had managed to avoid and keep the party electable. Sadly Red Ed doesn’t see it like this, or perhaps its his union friends who dictate strategy.

    There are unemployed people who are in that position through no fault of their own and should be supported and helped where possible. However there is a significant minority who don’t want to particiapte. Until Labour acknowledge this and offer something of substance in the way of policy, preferably one which will not be quietly dropped when or if they return to government, they will not be taken seriously.

  7. john reid says:

    Cue, the Liam byrne must be ousted comments by ,some poeple who aren’t even labour members or rejoined last year.

  8. Ray_North says:

    The real issue should be a more effective redistribution of wealth via work – and that means a drive to increase wages. This would be the most effective way of reducing benefit dependency and increasing demand in our stricken economy.
    We analyse this further in the following article: http://www.allthatsleft.co.uk/2013/01/in-the-debate-between-scroungers-and-strivers-where-does-the-greed-really-lie/

  9. bob says:

    The Labour party needs to get real here, when it promotes the idea that claimants have a rise in their annual income greater than those in the private sector and even in the public sector, as a nurse my rise at the top of my scale is 1%. You have little support for this outside the Westminster bubble. We all have make sacrifices to survive, when you have little income you have to cut your cloth accordingly, of you smoke at £5 a pack per day is £35 per week by 52 is nearly £450 per annum, do you need sky and its packages do you need alcohol, I contend NO, not in this world.

    As someone who has to be up at 5am and travel two and a half hours to and from work as I am self employed and work a 12 to 18 hour day, I also work part time for the NHS as i am retired, I resent those who will not help themselves, get off their backsides and do something about it. Dependencies should be treated, those who are lacking social and educational skills taught but if they don’t accept treatment equals no benefit.

    Produce some real policies or sink into oblivion. Your party has failed this country, you allowed unfettered immigration, without compelling those on benefits to work. Your allowed people to sit on benefits without doing anything about it. You borrowed irresponsibly or in the words of Liam Byrne ‘There’s NO money left’, and also failed to regulate the banking sector and the regulators were grossly negligent to say the least. the peak being the forced marriage between Lloyds and RBS. The reality is you ruined the economy and tried to abolish and bust under the actions of Brown Miliband and not least Balls, you may as well have tried to stop the tide.

    Your leaders have no concept of the working man or woman, what its like to lve on a council estate, you live a gilded existence, move from school to university to special adviser or maybe a journalist then MP. Get into the real world now! many of your party before being MPs have only worked in the public sector, narrowing their views of life.

    Maybe MPs should only be allowed three terms at most and then be removed from Parliament for 10 years, may make them open their eyes.

  10. e says:

    @john reid

    Not a member, but a supporter who wants something worth voting for, should I shut-up? That said I wouldn’t be calling for Liam Byrne to go because it’s not his fault alone that Labour seems so disconnected, disjointed and reliant upon dodgy doorstep anecdotes to sell policy.

  11. Ex-Labour says:

    @ Ray North

    Your article starts well but then goes into the same old simplistic rhetoric. Ever heard of globalisation ? BRIC’s economic growth ? Wages can not be just allowed to increase as this would make the business uneconomic in a competitive market. Cue job losess, company closures etc. So where does that then leave the workers ?

    Every day I see in my local community immigrant workers doing work. I think why can’t a Britsih person do that job ? Then a friend tells me of his brother-in-law who gave up a perfectly good job at a supermarket to return to his welfare lifestyle because he only gets £20 per week more for working full time. This my friend is the entitlement culture created by Labour welfare policies and a prime example of the sort of person who should not get any benefits.

  12. e says:

    @ Bob says

    Subsistence incomes rising with inflation don’t equate with percentage wage increases, it’s immoral of those who no better to suggest they do. Among the employed on the council estate where I live there’s plenty who recognise this is the case, and plenty of support for Labour’s stance.

    If I didn’t live “in the real world”, only had political debate to inform my view, I’d surely determine there was no hope of improving on things. All plausible descriptions of life on welfare get drowned at birth by a willingness to denigrate, despise or at best objectify, or smother with charitable “woe for the poor”. Oh, and not to forget deliberately distort in the pursuit of media or political profit and influence.

    Suggesting a person cuts from their £71 budget items they evidently can’t afford without help from friends or family is derisory. And while I acknowledge your description of the hard work it takes to make a living, these days, helping yourself by acquiring saleable skills isn’t as easy as it once was; there’s any number of impediments, principally money of course, but avoiding consequential benefit sanctions whilst making the effort is major, and there’s nothing positive in the planned universal credit on that score.

    I entirely agree there is a serious disconnect between the political class and “the real world” of everyday trial and toil. What worries me most is that since the global credit meltdown it increasingly looks deliberate….

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