How Labour can win on welfare

by Jonathan Todd

Labour will win the welfare debate when we reassure the public that we believe in the responsibility to work and convince them that the government is too incompetent to secure the right to work.

Labour’s approach to rights is anathema to Tories, and goes beyond the legalism of liberalism. The right to work is fundamental to us – we’re Labour, after all. Tories see no such right. Unemployment is a price worth paying. And work is, of course, a relational and lived experience, which can’t be distilled to the system of legal rights that defines liberalism.

All have a right to dignity, which the welfare state that Labour created must ensure. This right, more associated with Labour than other parties, is, however, abused when it subsidises the unwillingness of some who could work to fulfil their responsibility to actually work. That Labour has a stronger emphasis on rights than other parties, can leave us vulnerable to attacks predicated upon appeals to responsibility.

Iain Duncan Smith has launched such an attack. The principle driving his benefits cap is that all who are able have responsibilities to look for and take up work. Where there is more to be gained by staying at home, welfare incentivises the violation of responsibilities to seek and undertake work.

The common sense of fairness, which says that work, not welfare, should pay, is consistent with the best traditions of the left. Liam Byrne recently recalled the famous 1940s words from Labour leader Clement Attlee, that called for a Britain where: “all may have the duty and the opportunity of rendering service to the nation”.

Our welfare system should reinforce the duty to look for work and provide opportunities to work. This duties and opportunities pairing again came together in Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign theme of opportunity for all and responsibility from all, which inspired the stress of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown upon rights and responsibilities. Which thinking later resulted, as Byrne has noted, in Labour’s 2010 general election manifesto commitment to limit housing benefit payments to what working families can afford.

While Labour supports the cap, and this backing is consistent with our traditional emphasis upon duty and responsibility, Atul Hatwal is justified in worrying that Labour’s role in last week’s Lords rebellion resulted in us appearing to oppose the cap. No matter what the merits of the concerns raised in the Lords – and these concerns were not without merit – they had the effect of dulling our message that we support the cap.

To quibble over details is, in the minds of the hardly-paying-any-attention public, to bring into doubt our commitment to the underlying principle. This equivocation underscores the winning position on responsibilities to look for and take up work that Duncan Smith created.

It is Labour’s need to salvage a draw on this front that makes Byrne’s call for the regionalisation of the cap so important. In policy terms, he’s right to say that the same cap in London and Yorkshire will do less to stimulate these responsibilities in Yorkshire than in London. In political terms, by going further than Duncan Smith in sharpening incentives, he is seeking to recover the ground lost in the public’s mind by so questioning details of the cap in the Lords as to obscure our commitment to it. This commitment cannot be in doubt, which is the political purpose of calling for the regionalisation of the cap.

Taking the lead on this regionalisation debate has the potential to strengthen Labour’s position on the responsibility to work dimension of the welfare debate. Reassuring the public of our commitment to this responsibility will make them more receptive to claims from us that the incompetence of the government is to blame for the right to work being empty for many. Neutralising the responsibility dimension of the welfare debate will make it harder for the government to evade their complicity in the right to work dimension.

Here the government is vulnerable. Unemployment is at its highest since 1994. Female unemployment hasn’t been this high since 1987. Youth unemployment never has. The right to work will only be created for many by more competent economic management than this government is capable of providing.

The government is presently evading culpability for this failure. The more we can move the welfare debate onto their incompetency at creating jobs, the more likely we are to win it. And the more we can dovetail policy in this area with a broader narrative about the future of our economy. Then we begin to colonise that most valuable piece of political real estate: the future.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.

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11 Responses to “How Labour can win on welfare”

  1. Frederick James says:

    Despite the author’s attempt to use self-critical language, the tone of this article is complacent. The presumption that Labour is self-evidently the party of the worker runs right through it; but I am sorry to tell you that this “truth” is no longer self-evident.

    “The right to work is fundamental to us – we’re Labour”

    Many people reading that are going to laugh like drains. You are seen as the party that has made the right NOT to work a lifestyle choice, and a lot of people think it was deliberate.

  2. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    After the nonesense of making our system more open to corruption with elected Mayors with the power held by the few, not the many with real decentralization, you are now emulting Tories on Welfare lol. You are irrelevant because what you are offering is already on the table. Be prepared to be out of power for a very, very long time lol.

  3. figurewizard says:

    “The right to work is fundamental to us ….”

    As recent history has shown, the use of public money to enable this ‘right to work’ is not financially sustainable. What has to be in place to make this aspiration possible is a ‘right to create jobs’ especially in the case of small and medium sized businesses. These are usually the quickest off the mark in this respect. This would mean easing the costs of the burdens of regulation on business that only the biggest can actually afford to absorb and the correction of past errors in company taxation.

    This means in turn the restoration of the 0% rate of corporation tax for very small profits (up to £10K although £25K would make more sense) and marginal relief for medium sized company profits. When these were scrapped in the budget of 2005 a process of diverting such businesses’ cash flow to the Treasury’s coffers began, which has cost innumerable jobs and investment since.

  4. Nick says:

    Labour’s approach to rights is anathema to Tories, and goes beyond the legalism of liberalism. The right to work is fundamental to us – we’re Labour, after all. Tories see no such right.


    As is the right not to work.

    You will allow your funders, the Unions, the right to strike.

    You won’t allow the tax payer to strike. Oh, no.

    What you also miss, is that if you impose a right to work, then you impose an obligation to generate more money, or savings, that the cost of employing.

    You won’t do that.

  5. Nick says:

    Atul Hatwal is justified in worrying that Labour’s role in last week’s Lords rebellion resulted in us appearing to oppose the cap.


    No need to lie and spin. You did oppose the cap.

    Your problem now is that the electorate have realised that you are on the side of the 172K a year benefit claimant.

    You are not on the side of the hard working person.

    You might be on the side of your client state in the public sector.

    However, that means you have to accept that you are going to screw the majority, to pay for your favoured minority.

  6. Nick says:

    It is Labour’s need to salvage a draw on this front that makes Byrne’s call for the regionalisation of the cap so important.


    OK. What’s the cap going to be on the Wirral?

    Ah yes, you won’t say because that is electoral suicide. The cap will be lowered in Labour voting areas and not elsewhere.

  7. John Slinger says:

    Superb analysis here Jonathan. Far more nuanced than the usual heave-ho about the cap.

  8. vern says:

    No one minds supporting genuine triers and giving them a “hand-up” as these individuals share the aspirations of decent hard working folk. What we do find unpalatable is the “hand-out” mentality which as Fred James points out has led to people accepting this as a lifestyle choice. It is these individuals that are now considered labour’s core voter-once it was the working classes, now it is the non-working classes. Oh, and the public sector too, who benefitted from 50%+ increases in salaries under Labour’s appalling mis-management of the states finances.
    And you put your faith in Liam Byrne to get you out of this fix!

  9. AnneJGP says:

    Labour will win the welfare debate when we reassure the public that we believe in the responsibility to work and convince them that the government is too incompetent to secure the right to work.

    Do I take it, then, that you will be coming up with policies that might be termed “workfare”? Or, indeed, supporting government policies to that end?

  10. Andrea says:

    There has always been a tithe of bludgers. About all the ‘decent’ citizens can do is to mitigate the impact through prudence and punishment.

    There has always been an itinerant group who worked ‘enough’ – and they contribute goods, though not to the level of the ‘unco’ guid’ who virtuously rise and toil over most of the year.

    And then there is the large mass of people who, when paying work is there, get up and go to it. Followed by a bigger tax take, increased well-being and civility, willingness to be open-minded and other Good Things. These people are already responsive and responsible. They Get It – and they resent being stigmatised and ripped off.

    Now, under the corridors of power, is there a group working wisely to develop the green plans and blueprints for heading on to full employment for the majority despite ‘all our jobs going to China and India’? Very practical and realistic plans, as a matter of urgency. Is there? Probably not.

    From those plans can come policy and strategy and tactics for all kinds of players, including politicians. We’re not seeing that.

    It seems that, at the moment, no such service is operating, and the air is full of populist nonsense. ‘Responsibility to work’ must be partnered with ‘responsibility to break out of the tired old moulds and find/form new ways to let people work out ways to thrive and flourish fearlessly’.

    A non-existent partnership this far. And it doesn’t seem that any party (other than maybe the Greens) is even looking at the need for partnership with people beyond the usual think-tankers.

    Be responsible to get responsible, perhaps?

  11. swatantra says:

    There is a right to work but we have to ensure that jobs are there and worthwhile jobs at that.And we have to ask if Lbour can create those jobs. it reqires a change of mindset and an entrepreneural sprit because those jobs will invariably be in the private sector as the public sector shrinks.
    There is no point in demanding ‘jobs for the workers’ if we don’t have the brains and knowhow to create thosre jobs. Alot of the jobs are going to be in the skilled sector. So that means one third of our potential workforce will have to be educated and trained otherwise they will lose out to foreign workers.

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