by Atul Hatwal
The much quoted definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Today, the Labour party is testing this proposition.
For the third time in seven months, Labour is attempting to re-position itself on welfare. For the third time in seven months the pre-briefing before a welfare reform speech has been about “toughness,” how Labour will cut benefits for young people and respond to public concerns on welfare spending.
We’ve been here before.
As a taster for what’s likely to come, this is what happened the first time Labour went down this road, back in November last year. James Kirkup at the Telegraph wrote a story on potential Labour cuts to benefits for under 25s if they were not in training or ‘intensively’ looking for work, based on an IPPR report and a briefing from the party.
The backlash from the party forced an immediate denial, with Rachel Reeves tweeting “This is not and will not be our policy” “it’s not our plan” and “it is totally not my position!” Cue much relief,
— Matthew Pennycook (@mtpennycook) November 20, 2013
— Mark Ferguson (@Markfergusonuk) November 20, 2013
These weren’t the reactions of random activists, Matthew Pennycook is the PPC in Nick Raynsford’s seat and will be an MP in 2015, Gemma Tummelty works for Ed Miliband and Mark Ferguson edits Labour List.
Take two. In January this year, Tom Newton Dunn at the Sun wrote a similar story about removing benefits for the young unemployed, which was, once again, based on another IPPR report and a briefing from the party. Cue a repeated denial from Rachel Reeves and more relief,
Glad Rachel Reeves has said Labour won’t slash young people’s benefits, let’s hope they come up with policies for secure, properly paid jobs
— Owen Jones (@OwenJones84) January 18, 2014
— Tony McNulty (@Tony_McNulty) January 18, 2014
— Mark Ferguson (@Markfergusonuk) January 18, 2014
Given these past reactions, it’s hardly difficult to predict the outrage that will bubble over in the party following Ed Miliband’s commitment to cut benefits for young people living at home, at the launch yet another IPPR report.
The fury will be all the worse given Rachel Reeves’ past denials that there would be no cuts . Such a clear policy U-turn is difficult at the best of times, but on an issue like this, where so many of Labour’s most influential voices have already gone on the record to condemn what is now Labour’s new policy, there is little way back. Not without going through some painful ideological contortions that only the most devoutly loyal would even countenance.
The real question is this: how does the Labour leadership react when the backlash sets in?
The traditional response has been to assuage the angry. In this instance, another U-turn seems unlikely – Ed Miliband’s speech was too unequivocal for that. But that doesn’t mean the policy couldn’t be qualified with exemptions inserted to address concerns and neuter its impact.
If this isn’t enough, there’s always the gambit used when Ed Balls announced that Labour would stick to the Tories’ spending plans: distract the base with a bauble. For Balls, it was announcing a return of the 50p tax rate; for welfare, something comparable could be an end to the current disability assessment regime.
Whatever choice the leadership opts for, one thing seems certain: based on past experience, the louder Labour’s base shouts, the more likely that either the policy will be amended or there will be the policy equivalent of a consolation prize.
At which point, all of the very deliberate pre-briefing about ‘toughness’ and listening to voter concerns on welfare becomes utterly pointless and Labour is back at square one with the public.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut