by Peter Watt
So, after five hours of heated debate the government got its way and parliament voted to limit annual increases in working-age benefits to 1%, for the next three years.
Only a handful of Lib Dems rebelled. But put aside the rights and wrongs of the argument for the moment. Just consider the arguments used in the first big political battle of the second half of this parliament.
To be effective an argument has to be heard, resonate, be noticed and be believable. It critically has to be understood. I spent much of Monday and Tuesday listening to party spokespeople making their arguments in advance of and in the aftermath of the welfare vote. I was struck by just how hard it was for Labour to get to the point and to make their argument. The government spokespeople on the other hand seemed to get to the point quickly. I wonder if this is why? When you go to the respective websites and try to get a distillation of the arguments you find:
“Today Labour are voting to increase benefits by more than workers’ wages. Conservatives: standing up for hardworking people.”
“Labour will today challenge the government to back its plan for a compulsory jobs guarantee for the long term unemployed as new figures from the IFS show 7 million working people will be hit by the government’s ‘strivers tax’. The new report from the IFS shows that 7 million working families will lose out under the government’s real terms cuts to tax credits and other benefits. It follows Children’s Society research which shows that a second lieutenant will lose £552 a year, a nurse could lose £424 a year and a primary school teacher could lose £424 a year. Labour will oppose the bill and call for the government to bring in a compulsory jobs guarantee, which would give people out of work for 24 months or more a job which they would have to take up or lose their benefits.”
Remember, put aside the merits of the respective arguments, and judge them on their effectiveness.
Labour’s is complicated, multi-layered and has internal dependencies. It relies on you to understand what very well may be a whole new lexicon – “IFS’’, “compulsory jobs guarantee”, and “tax credits”. Most of all, it is very, very long. This mattered when it came to making the arguments on the airwaves. Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps said:
“For years, the gap between those who earn and those who live on benefits has grown – and this government is restoring fairness to the system. Labour have long since forgotten that people work hard to pay their taxes and support our welfare system. ‘Today’s vote will be an opportunity for them to join us in the fairness lobby.”
Liam Byrne MP, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, said:
“It’s now clear. There’s a Labour way to bring down the welfare bill and a Tory way. The Tory way is to hijack support for working people. The Labour way is to help people work. The Tories and their Lib Dem friends have delivered a flatling economy and rising long term unemployment which has put up the welfare bill by over £13 billion more than planned. And now they want working people to pay the bill with a strivers tax that will hit 7 million families. Yet they’re happy to give a £107,000 tax cut to 8,000 millionaires. Tomorrow’s bill does nothing to create a single new job, fix the chaos in universal credit or the work programme which has been an utter failure. So we’ll be asking MPs to vote for real welfare reform, a compulsory jobs guarantee that will end life on welfare for the first time.”
It is obvious which the clearer argument is – and I don’t mean the right argument. On the other hand Liam seems to be unsure exactly what the best attack is. Is it hijacking working people; flatlining economy and rising unemployment; strivers tax; 8000 millionaires; chaotic universal credit; failed work programme; the need for real welfare reform or a compulsory jobs guarantee? And bearing in mind that we have had weeks to prepare a line on this! It’s almost as if we have forgotten the importance and art of making an argument.
This is likely to be one of the key debates over the coming months. It is essentially the very early skirmishes of the 2015 election campaign. Assuming that the Tories listen to the advice of those telling them to tone down some of their harder edged rhetoric with regards to “scroungers” then they would seem to have a powerful and simple argument that will be repeated over and over.
Labour has a political essay.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party