by Kevin Meagher
In raw political terms, the fact that voters hold Labour accountable by a margin of ten to one for the size of the benefits bill is about as about politically toxic as it gets.
The poll finding, in our forthcoming pamphlet “Labour’s manifesto uncut: How to win in 2015 and why”, shows the scale of Labour’s real challenge, underneath its broad opinion poll lead.
Over half of those who think welfare spending is too high (54 per cent) blame Labour, with only five per cent pointing the finger at the coalition.
Meanwhile 45 per cent trust Cameron to control welfare spending and prevent it rising out of control, compared to 14 per cent who back Ed Miliband.
This gap goes to the heart of Labour’s credibility as a party of government, so narrowing it must be a strategic priority.
But the problem goes deeper than simply convincing floating voters Labour is tough but fair on social security costs. The entire collectivist model underpinning the welfare state is now on the table.
Our polling shows that 44 per cent of people think the benefits bill is “too high” with only 35 per cent saying it is “about right” or “too low.” So much, then, for people rising up against the government’s benefits changes.
In fact, research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has also found a marked shift from voters accepting ‘societal’ explanations of poverty towards them blaming individuals for their circumstances. Back in 1994, just fifteen per cent of the public thought people lived in need because of laziness or lack of willpower. Nearly a quarter, (23 per cent), think so today.
Let’s be clear: the creation of the benefits system is probably Labour’s greatest achievement. It relies on an altruistic appeal to voters, encouraging them to pay into a system that they themselves draw less out of. Convincing them to carry on doing so should give social democrats sleepless nights.
If we are to future-proof the welfare state against this hardening of attitudes we need to manage costs and transform it into a nurturing state, specifically focused around getting people into paid work and keeping them there for the vast majority of their adult lives.
In doing so, Labour has two problems to grapple with. The first is agreeing what it is fair and reasonable to expect from people in terms of the economic contribution they make versus the entitlements they draw. The second is determining what is needed and legitimate from the state and employers to support those in work.
On the first problem, Labour needs to articulate a new golden rule on welfare. Apart from the disabled and most vulnerable, work is expected. It is the duty of all adults to put their shoulder to the wheel. Work is normal.
At the moment, the public don’t think the party of labour has the workers’ interests at heart. In fact 41 per cent of trade unionists agree that the benefits bill is too high. Labour’s failure to engage on terms familiar to the average voter means the party is forced to overcompensate on other issues. Ed Miliband should have felt able to come out against the government’s unjust and unworkable bedroom tax but has remained wary of doing so for months because it knows voters see the party as a soft touch on welfare overall.
But in doing more to restore the contributory principles of the benefits system and insist on the centrality of work, Labour can widen the issue to look at the obligations that also fall on the state and business.
The government has to get serious about helping meet childcare costs which, for many working families, are simply crippling.
The Daycare Trust and Family and Parenting Institute’s Childcare Costs Survey for 2013, shows nursery, childminder and after-school club costs all rising at twice the rate of inflation, while a nursery place now costs 77 per cent more in real terms than it did in 2003. Quite simply, the government needs to go a lot further in picking up the tab.
Equally, businesses have a responsibility to pay for the skills of their workers, with a third of companies, according to the Commission for Employment and Skills, paying nothing for training. A compulsory training levy would be one way of levelling the paying field for good employers.
Labour is already beginning to make the case for a tougher approach to work and welfare, reflecting the realities of public opinion, but does so intermittently and usually behind a cupped hand.
The risk is that a dangerous gap emerges between Labour’s residual paternalism towards welfare claimants and the altogether harsher centre of gravity of the electorate overall. Saving the noble, collectivist principles of the system depends on Labour stopping this rot in public trust.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut. “Labour’s manifesto uncut: How to win in 2015 and why” is launched on Monday 23rd September at the PragRad fringe at Labour conference