George Osborne has a point on Philpott. Labour is dangerously out of sync with public opinion

by Ben Mitchell

For the past 18 months or so I’ve spent quite a bit of time defending Ed Miliband: a decent man with a broad vision about how our political system needs to be changed to work for the many instead of a privileged, sheltered few. I’ve applauded the leadership’s disassociation from the worst excesses of New Labour – its authoritarianism, ruthless attacks on civil liberties, reckless liberal interventionism. He has taken on powerful elites in a way few have dared to.

But over the last few months an immaturity and amateurish streak has taken hold. Beginning with his breathtaking naivety in fully endorsing the Leveson Report in its entirety with barely any time to take in the executive summary, let alone digest all 1,987 pages. Wanting to be on the side of the victims of hacking and new best mate to UK Celebs Are Us, clouded his judgement and put Labour on the wrong side of press freedom. But at least he had public opinion on his side. Even though Leveson and press regulation will barely feature come polling day.

Not so welfare.  As Dan Hodges pointed out last week:

“The “debate” over welfare playing out over the last few days has reminded me of where we were with the debate on immigration a decade ago.”

We are in the embryonic stages, meaning hyperbole, misinformation, accusations and counter-accusations shout down the moderate and measured. Mick Philpott, doting father of 17, misogynist, benefit-scrounger extraordinaire, and now guilty of the manslaughter of six of his children puts us firmly in hysteria territory. Vile product of Welfare UK? Of course not. But a man entitled to handouts totalling up to £50,000 a year according to some reports is evidence of a benefits system intent on self-harm.

There was nothing remotely controversial about George Osborne musing that:

“There is a question for government and for society about the welfare state – and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state – subsidising lifestyles like that, and I think that debate needs to be had.”

Every right-thinking person would have been nodding in approval. I certainly was. Then in blunders Ed Balls with the equivalent of a studs-first two-footed tackle:

“George Osborne’s calculated decision to use the shocking and vile crimes of Mick Philpott to advance a political argument is the cynical act of a desperate chancellor.”

No, Ed. Osborne’s comments will have struck a chord, even with Labour voters. Especially with Labour voters. Sarah Teather’s contribution bordered on the idiotic when she said that Osborne was seeking to:

“Demonise anybody who receives any kind of welfare support.”

Again, wrong. The extremity of a case like Philpott milking the system for all it’s worth is exactly the sort of thing that has the public foaming with rage. Its rarity is irrelevant to public anger. Opinion already formed only hardens.

When left wingers (rightly) point out that such abuses are isolated, they are merely preaching to other like-minded souls. Just because something is rare, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of public attention. Policy is often changed or loopholes closed in the face of extreme examples: the Dunblane school shootings and the subsequent law on handguns; the Soham murders and the never-ending growth of the CRB industry. One could reasonably argue that certain anti-terror laws are passed and are wholly disproportionate, all the result of the murderous acts and/or thoughts of a very small number.

Ed Miliband has yet to comment on Philpott, but don’t expect a deviation from his shadow chancellor’s script. Welfare, immigration and economic credibility: not so much Labour’s Achilles’ heel as an entire Achilles’ limb. Labour trails the Tories on all three. All three will dominate the election campaign.

Labour has made the right noises on immigration. Miliband shrewdly acknowledges economic impact versus its social and cultural effect. On welfare, all there is is a lot of hot air. See Peter Watt’s piece on these pages last week.

This is not to say I don’t support the party’s opposition to some of the government’s welfare reforms, such as the bedroom tax. I’m fairly confident that the sight of families or people with disabilities being forced to relocate under the gaze of the media will drive the government into a humiliating retreat.  It’s one thing freezing or cutting benefits.  Not something that can be really captured with the naked eye.  Yet, it’ll be a lot easier to film a man or woman in a wheelchair being led out of their home with all their earthly possessions in tow.  The pictures will look dreadful.

Labour’s job is to provide a solid and serious alternative to bringing down the welfare bill. Liam Byrne’s piece in yesterday’s Observer sounded some of the right notes but now the party’s position seems even more confused. Labour has expended so much energy opposing every government effort so far that it’s hard to see how or where Byrne’s new initiative fits.

Wanting to be heard at all costs has led Labour to play politics in accusing Osborne of playing politics last week.  It beggars belief that the party lack the maturity to simply echo Osborne’s sensible comments. Their intervention has shown that they offer next to nothing on the welfare debate, even when faced with a grotesque man having a laugh at the nation’s over-generous expense.  Sometimes it’s good to learn that opposition for opposition’s sake just looks desperate.

The best contribution to last week’s event was found in The Times from Tony Blair’s former speechwriter Philip Collins (£):

“By opposing the welfare consequences of austerity with no viable alternative, Labour is asking to be placed on the side of those who want the welfare bill to rise rather than those who want it to fall.

“The absence of a constructive Labour voice from the welfare debate means that the left is associated only with the shrill shriek of opposition”.

Ben Mitchell is deputy editor of the cross-party blog Speaker’s Chair

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23 Responses to “George Osborne has a point on Philpott. Labour is dangerously out of sync with public opinion”

  1. Simon Christopher-Chambers says:

    So whatever the ‘public opinion’ we should follow. Even though much of that opinion has been shaped by lies, myths & distortions. Philpott was not in receipt of £50,000 in benefits as you say. His ‘working wife & girlfriend’ were receiving the bulk, Philpott simply stole it by controlling them. Much of it was also ‘child benefit’ – a benefit the richest in society are entitled to.

    The Tories narrative is ‘make work pay’ & to achieve that they want to reduce state support so low as to create a pre-beveridge society. Ironically, forcing families to double up in housing & many of our young people to live in squat like conditions.

    In this we should be shaping public opinion not cynically following it because its the politically easy thing to do. To make ‘work pay’ we should be attacking the the low pay culture that particularly pervades our service & retail industry. We should be tackling the high cost of living particularly with regards to housing & travel costs. And we should be driving forward the debate on achieving a cultural & societal change to a fairer distribution of wealth.

    Your politics are the politics of defeatism & acceptance.

  2. Alexsandr says:

    There isnt a bedroom tax you muppet. it is a change in the benefits system. At leat get your facts right

  3. donpaskini says:

    Hi Ben,

    What evidence leads you to conclude that the public are on Osborne’s side about this? YouGov found that 43% thought that ‘this case does raise serious questions about the benefits system’, whereas 51% thought that ‘Whatever you think of the benefits system, the Philpott case was just the actions of an evil man and we shouldn’t draw wider lessons from it’. i.e. a narrow majority disagreed with Osborne.

  4. Chris Young says:

    What is all this about being out of step with public opinion?

    Is there not a single person in the world of politics that has the ambition to lead public opinion?

  5. swatantra says:

    Looks like Labour are belatedly catching up with what the rest of the World is thinking. Still, its a move in the right direction. You don’t get something for nothing, not in this world you don’t. The fact is there should be a periodic re-assessment, because circumstances change, some worsen, some improve.

  6. john donkin says:

    Everyone I know, and I mean everyone, is sick of paying tax to subsidise the lifestyles of the benefit classes.

    For example: people on mobility, who are not ‘disabled’ in the traditional sense but rather are claiming the equivalent of the Platinum Dole Card for being fat or depressed or having a bad knee or something, and have no intention of ever working, are driving cars that real taxpayers like me could not afford to buy.

    The Labour party should think about representing people who ‘labour’ to earn a living rather than remaining the party of those who neither labour or vote. If they don’t they will fail to win the next election.

  7. Phil Pineck says:

    You are quite right, Ed Milliband is a decent enough rich man and the peoples’ millionaire.

    Labour are also out of touch with the general public on immigration, fighting foreign wars and the ONSs figures on rising employment.

    It’s about time Labour got some working class people back in the organisation and chucked out some of the middle class chancers who focus on their careers and not the benefit of the country.

  8. Felix says:

    Typical Labour Uncut tripe. Ben Mitchell accusing others of hysteria while he ratchets up overblown rhetoric upon shrieking metaphor.

  9. e says:

    Try as you might to keep Philpott’s egregious lifestyle on the agenda, Ed Balls was on target, and Labour’s plans to reintroduce a contributory based system, as is common on the continent, moved the debate on to a more civilised footing.

    I can agree we are in the embryonic stages, beyond which, you seem to have little idea of the world outside your bubble.

    Not for the first time, I’m “currently unemployed” as they say. I’m a grandmother and I know well how to budget and stretch the pennies during such times. £3 for 2 Easter eggs was beyond my pocket this year – that’s this year! That’s pre the bedroom tax and new council tax liability. What’s your estimate of the lightly rate of inflation over the next few years? And here’s the rub, it will be “hard workers”, those who you feign support for who will feel obliged to help me survive ongoing repression. Just as in turn, should I find work again – when I’m the “hard worker” short of watching people collapse with hunger and or sleep on a bench I shall be required to do likewise. Not fair and not bloody sustainable

  10. Ex-labour says:

    @ Ben Mitchell

    Generally a sensible and constructive post and I hope there is a realisation from Labour that we – the working population – can no longer subsidise massive welfare spending.

    However you mention the use of hyperbole from others and then go on to spoil yourself by using hyperbole over the so called bedroom tax.

    @John Donkin

    Can’t really argue with anything you say. I’ll just tell you a quick story to make maters worse. In Kwikfit a few months ago a young man walked in who had a limp. He asked the engineer to check one of his tyres and pointed to a brand new BMW. Having done the check the engineer said it needed a new tyre at £209. No problem replied the man – just put it on Motability !!! This was about 30k + of car on the state. To make matters worse he said he was off for a walk round whilst the car was fixed. Eh ? Where’s the disability?

    I asked the engineer if this was something out of the ordinary and he told me that He was seeing very high end cars in recent years as opposed to the standard vehicles they normally dealt with.

    As I right this my neighbour has just got his new Motability car, a new Vauxhall Sigma. Well actually his wife claims it and she has never done a days work in her life.

    FFS I give up !

  11. Felix says:

    Yeah John Donkin, and everyone knows SO MUCH about everyone else’s benefit claims that 96% of calls to the govt’s benefit fraud line turn out to be wrong and vexatious, with many of the people reported not even claiming benefits at all.

    So John, that’s how very little you do actually know.

  12. Simon Christopher-Chambers says:

    Donkin by name donkey by nature. Do you write for the Daily Mail or are you gullible & stupid enough to believe their vile diatribe?

    The VAST majority of our welfare bill is swallowed up by pensioners & WORKING people. This is because we are living longer (what’s your policy for reducing that or are you & your friends sick of supporting these idle old scroungers too?) & support for people on low wages (you probably think its ok to subsidise businesses as these are hard-working entrepreneurs and its not their fault they can’t make a profit if they don’t pay minimum rates)

  13. Ex-labour says:

    @ Simon

    No need for personal abuse to another contributor just because you disagree.

    You are correct that pensioners etc do account for much of the welfare bill. However the reason why there are so many workers claiming benefits in the form of tax credits etc is that continued efforts at “redistribution” by Labour governments has lead to a situation where, having used the tax system to do this, they then have to ‘pay back’ to those who are on lower incomes. Labour should remember its NOT the states money, it belongs to those who have earned it through their own efforts.

  14. swatantra says:

    In the old days you employed a live in helper/carer/companion to help with everyday tasks, to push your wheel chair to help with housework and shopping etc, instead of your going around in an expensive 4×4 mobility truck subsidised by the State. Surely there must be a limit to ‘independent living’? eg if it takes you 3 hours to get to the shops, why not phone and arrange home delivery, or get your family/neighbours to help out, and give you a lift. And so you don’t get trapped in your home why not be involved in schemes where there are pickups to take those incapacitated to Day Centres, on Jaunts, on Vists etc for communal activity and isocial interaction.

  15. Simon Christopher-Chambers says:

    @ ex-labour

    I took the ignorant perpetuation of myths, distortions & downright lies of @ donkin as personal abuse. So if you give it be prepared to take it.

  16. Phil Pineck says:

    For those going on about pensioners:

    Remember that they have paid their NIC contributions, and so have their employers, for the whole of their working lives. They have contributed and are entitled to their pensions.

  17. southern voter says:

    Labour needs a nuanced approach to welfare and not oppose just for the sake of opposing.The working class do not like being made to look like mugs.Benefit scroungers enjoy very little sympathy with labour voters and ex-labour voters.
    Shadow cabinet please take note!

  18. Felix says:

    So out of touch with public opinion that it hasn’t made a single impact on Labour’s lead in the polls, but don’t expect hard facts to get in the way of any Uncut story.

  19. Ex-Labour says:

    @ Simon

    Typical lefty Stalinist attitude to anyone who disagrees with the socialist utopian vision.

  20. Major Plonquer says:

    Labour used to be the “party of bampots”. Now they’re the “party of Philpots”.

    I actually live and work in a REAL socialist country. I have to say that when I meet the Labour Party people who visit here, not one of them – not one – would qualify as a Socialist. Not one would volunteer for collective work on a farm for five years to give back to the society they owe their livelihood to. No. Instead they only want to tell other people how they should live and work.

    The left wants to make decisions about how other people should live their lives. In a true socialist country other people (society) would decide how they should live their lives. They’ve got it all wrong. What the British left is promoting isn’t Socialism at all. It’s pure Fascism. And they have the nerve….

    Alarm bells began ringing about the Economy in 2005 under Blair’s watch but the infighting between Blair and Brown ,both having their own camps of followers were out to damage each other rather than tackle an ever looming Economic Problem .Blair started having talks with Unum the multi- National Disability Insurer whom had previously advised Thatcher .Under Blair the Welfare System needed an overall and Unum and Atos the IT company formed a partnership .The concept of Welfare Reform was needed but not in the way it Openly Blanketed everyone as fit for work then working backwards .As we have witnessed the Deaths involved have made an economic intervention into a cynical manipulation of the Public .This is Political Panic and there is more to come ,watch out for spending money limited ,investments restricted ,a dividend tax and private pensions nationalised .All because Personal Ego’s Power & Greed were at the forefront of Individuals minds and not the Country .

  22. Simon Christopher-Chambers says:

    @ ex-labour

    I think you’ll find that cap doesn’t fit. I challenged # donkin & indeed your promotion of lies, myths & distortions. All of which, I think, you’ll find Stalin was a master of.

  23. DavidNcl says:

    @Simon Christopher-Chambers
    Nice working class name that!

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