by Peter Watt
I don’t know what Labour’s position on welfare reform is. I know that the Tories want to cut welfare bills and make work pay. I know this because they keep saying it and because they have just spent the last few weeks pushing changes to the welfare system that appear to confirm this. It doesn’t matter at this stage whether the policies will actually achieve this or not because at this stage what matters is that their rhetoric is matched by actions that appear consistent with their words.
But Labour has in the past also talked tough on welfare and that it would like to reduce welfare bills. The problem is that it is currently fighting a battle in which it is opposing the government’s attempts to achieve this. So Labour appears confused.
The truth about the current crop of welfare reforms will not be known for some time. Both the government and the opposition have talked up the changes brought in on April 1. The government wants the changes seen as being a turning of the corner in the ever increasing rise in welfare payments.
The opposition wants the changes to be seen as evidence of the inherent nastiness, unfairness and cynicism of the government. The truth is of course somewhat more complex. The so called “bedroom tax” for instance is probably flawed as there is not enough social housing stock for people to actually downsize to.
People will therefore either be worse off or have to move to smaller premises in the private sector which will of course cost the state more in housing benefit. But other aspects of the changes seem reasonable like the benefits cap; even if the government is crudely talking up the tiny numbers of families able to actually claim hundreds of thousands in benefits.
Experts on all sides are debating the merits of the various changes and in truth it is not clear who or what is right. I suspect that both sides are over claiming the impact and that welfare bills will in fact continue rising anyway despite some clearly suffering further hardship as a result. But what is crystal clear is that the government is determined to be seen as determined to cut welfare payments.
But Labour? They seem determined to be seen as arguing that the changes are unfair and that they won’t work. But it is not even a little bit clear, never mind crystal clear, what they would do instead. And this really matters.
Now before anyone shouts at me, I am not arguing for not opposing the changes or for a bit of spin or double-speak. I am certainly not arguing that Labour should simply look at the opinion polls that appear to vindicate Osborne’s welfare cuts and try and outdo him by demanding even more pain.
But I am arguing that the job of the opposition is to do more than simply oppose. It is to present a coherent and credible argument as to why they would do better. Now at this stage of the Parliament it is probably too soon to be setting out detailed welfare plans. But it is almost too late to be setting out a direction of travel or broad principles. Impressions are being formed in the minds of voters right now that will take some shifting in the last few months of the campaign in 2015.
Labour should be using the current debate to establish exactly what it feels about the state of the current welfare state.
It needs to explain how it would approach the rising bills and rising price to the taxpayer in an era when every spending priority is rightly being scrutinised. The primacy of the contributory principle should be re-established. Labour should better articulate what it thinks is the correct balance between overall tax levels and the effective subsidy given to some businesses and private landlords by way of housing benefits and tax-credits to employees.
We should be attacking the government for incompetence (not unfairness) for bringing in changes to the welfare system that won’t work or may even make things worse. And we should strengthen this attack by strongly supporting those changes that will work.
Instead, what we see are Labour politicians on our airwaves and on social media talking about how unfair it is that people on welfare are being penalised by the government. It may very well be unfair but what is also unfair is that people not in receipt of welfare payments are being taxed to the hilt to pay for this. It just seems that Labour don’t care about this as much if at all. The impact of “standing up for” the most vulnerable may very well be that Labour risks further alienating some of our most vulnerable from those who feel genuinely cross that they are having to work hard so that others do not.
I am sure that there are many very clever people who are advising Labour on the impact of the welfare changes proposed by the government. I am sure because their figures and worked examples of those who are losing out are being used by spokespeople regularly and loudly. I am hopeful that there are some equally clever people advising Labour on what the welfare state may look like under a Labour government. I just wish that someone would make sure that the clues as to exactly what these clever folk are saying could also be heard. Because right now, I am not actually sure what Labour’s approach on welfare reform actually is.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party