by Atul Hatwal
Yesterday Labour voted against the welfare uprating bill after a debate in the House of Commons dominated by the four horseman of the welfare apocalypse, “scrounger,” “shirker,” “striver” and “skiver.”
These are highly charged, emotive terms, laden with implicit meaning. The focus of the debate in the run up to the vote has been on the values inherent in these words. The Tories are slapping a tax on strivers. No, Labour wants to sign a blank cheque for scroungers. Back and forth it has raged.
But amidst the sound and light about who was actually on the side of the hard working majority, the real impact on voter perceptions, and damage to Labour, has received comparatively little attention. Only yesterday, as the Tories rowed back from the sharper exigencies of their scrounger rhetoric did they alight on the most pointed attack on Labour.
Voters were already pretty clear that Labour will by and large try to protect benefits for the less well-off while the Tories are tougher on cheats. The values debate will not have altered this perception, except maybe to entrench it for both sides: the Tories cut with too much relish and Labour is more likely to fall for a hard luck story.
The one incontrovertible fact of Labour’s vote against the welfare uprating bill is that the party has now backed higher spending on benefits than the government.
Yes, there was plenty of reference from the Labour benches in the debate on getting people back to work and reducing the overall welfare bill through growth but that is as convincing as Tory claims before the last election they could make most of their savings from “efficiencies,” cutting the mythical “waste.”
There is a world of difference between a hard spending commitment, locked into the next 3 years of departmental expenditure plans; and a notional, hoped for, non-specific aspiration of growth at some point in the future.
This is what has given the Tories their big win on welfare: it’s the economics rather than the values. That’s why their MPs were hammering away on this point in the round of post-vote interviews.
It’s bad enough making spending commitments on things that are unpopular – more voters support the Tory position on the bill than Labour’s by a 45% to 35% margin – but to sign-up to expenditure without saying where the money is coming from is the cardinal sin.
It’s not as if the party does not understand the importance of fiscal prudence. Otherwise, why else are public sector workers going to be subject to the same restraint Labour just opposed for welfare?
And it’s not as if the party doesn’t appreciate the importance of carefully costing commitments. Otherwise why else would the very sensible jobs guarantee announced by Ed Balls last week have come with a clear source of ring-fenced funding?
But for some reason, when it came to the welfare uprating bill, Labour forgot about the economics, forgot that public perceptions on fiscal profligacy lost us the last election (to the extent that 36% still blame us for the spending cuts versus 27% blaming the coalition) and got sucked into a fight on the values. An unwise fight at the best of times, given the public’s position, but utterly lethal to any hope of rebuilding voters’ trust in Labour on spending.
The result will be grimly evident over the next few months. Ceteris paribus, the Tories’ lead on who is most trusted on the economy will expand from the already disastrous 11%. More than any image of Labour cosying up on the sofa with a layabout, watching Countdown, this will be the lasting legacy of the party’s vote last night.
Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut