Friday, 17 June 2011

Why is Labour so silent on Welfare reform?

Yesterday, Tom Clark, in a wonderful article for The Guardian, argued strongly against the proposed Tory cap on benefits. ‘The nasty cap fits’ was his amusing A-head.

But his subtitle was more reflective: ‘The crude limit on family benefits does not make financial sense. But it works for the Sun.’

I cannot pretend to know what I am talking about when it comes to benefits. I think I share this with many people – even those who are on benefits themselves. I suspect that this is part of the problem, because it lends itself to a suspicion that there are people ‘out there’, who do know more than you, and who are therefore able to ‘work the system’.

What I DO know, however, was that – even after Tom Clark’s crusading piece – I was still left worryingly unconvinced by his argument.

I hope that isn’t because I’ve turned fascist in my old age – I don’t think so, anyway.

But I was not won over by his arguments – even by his startling claim that people on benefits will only have £3 per person per day to live on under the proposed cap of £26,000 a year.

I think my point would be that – whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter – what Labour needs to come to terms with is that it is the Tories, not they, who have won the public ear on this matter.

It is all about matching the public mood, isn’t it! In 1979, after a winter of discontent, Thatcher simply caught the mood of a nation which was fed up with strikes and inflation. The Labour landslide of 1997 swept in on a mood of ‘things can only get better’. These were not individual cognitive decisions by the electorate. ‘The nation’ had formed a collective view.

No amount of argument, reason – even blunt, incontrovertible FACTS! – could have swayed the nation at those points. It had made up its mind.

Unfortunately, I fear the same is true about Welfare.

When I was a young father with a growing family, just starting to make my way in my career, things were desperately hard. The five of us (plus dog) lived in a two-bed terrace in a back street in a pit village. Both my wife and I did moonlight jobs to make ends meet. We were very happy, but we lived frugally.

Nobody stepped in for me and said how dreadful it was that my income was capped, and that please could they give me some more so I could live in a house which wasn't overcrowded. The implicit view of the state, explicitly of my parents, and to be fair of myself, was that I’d made my bed and now I’d have to lie in it.

So I’m sorry to say that the Tories have won the propaganda battle here. Why should people on benefits be absolved from the ‘cap’ that constrains every working person – the need to live within one’s income? Why should people on benefits live in a world where the decision to have more children just causes the state to find you a larger house and more income … when the people whose taxed wages are paying for those benefits do not have that opportunity?

I don’t know much Tom Clark earns, but has he any idea how much £26,000 SOUNDS to hundreds of thousands of people who can never dream of having anywhere near that to live on. And if not they who are working, they must surely think, why someone else who isn’t?

It’s not fair.

Now I have lived long enough to be sure that it is not as easy as that, and I am more than happy for someone who does know what they are talking about to come along and prove that this is a most terrible misconception. But that is not my point. My point is that this is what ‘the nation’ has come to think, and Labour needs to realise that not only has this become the accepted argument … it is an argument that Labour now finds itself on the wrong side of.

And don’t think that support for the principle of a cap comes from the rich, alienated from real life by their upbringing and lifestyle – or even the middle classes, trapped in a thrift ethic which mortgages the present to secure the future. No – the Tory line on benefits exactly the mirrors the opinions of hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people – the ‘Sun readers’ whom Labour once represented.

I am conscious of a certain hypocrisy amongst working people in this matter. Your ‘working man’ is quite able to turn a blind eye when it is his daughter who has the live-in lover whom she hasn’t declared. And his wife complains bitterly about how hard her son’s family are finding it to cope now he has lost his job – ‘the Welfare’ will be all that’s mean and useless in that circumstance. But, even so, as to the principle, the Tories have won hands down.

I remember my surprise at the reaction, a few years ago, when ‘that’ family in a certain deprived area of the town held a Bonfire Night Party. Local working people looked on with outrage as the beer flowed, and firework after expensive firework went skywards, and not one member of that family had ever worked in generations, and the children ran out of control, and every penny of that party was paid for, either by the state, or by fiddle jobs.

Every day, in an admittedly right-wing press, people are reading of this family or that individual who have been getting thousands upon thousands from the taxpayer and promptly wasting it, or who have been diddling the social and apparently got away with it.

It has become immovably established in the public psyche that the system is too lax … and alongside this that the Labour Party supports a sloppy system which pampers the indolent.

And with justification? According to Tom Clark, some Labour MPs have opposed the cap, and the Labour leadership has temporised. When he was challenged to support welfare reform at PMQs on Wednesday, Ed Milliband was conspicuous by his silence.

For most people, that means simply ‘guilty as charged’.

WHY do we have this yawning gap in leadership on this issue?

‘Caring’ for the poor is not the same as allowing yourself to be made a mug of.

Wanting to take people out of poverty is not the same as pouring money into squandering pockets.

We can speak out fearlessly against the abuse of the system – in fact, the louder we condemn evident abuses, the more popular we will become with our traditional ‘working people’ supporters.

It is not out of order for Labour to condemn benefit cheats, and to demand that the system eliminates those anomalies which are forever getting into the newspapers, where some nightmare family has ended up living at megabucks to the taxpayer in a huge house in a swank neighbourhood. Nobody supports such things, and it will not do us any harm with the people who actually go out to vote to say so. Labour have not yet realised that – when they attack such things – they are things for which the Tories (not they) are now responsible!

There is nothing weak in saying that Welfare DOES need reform but that the Tories are doing it all the wrong way.

There is not even anything wrong with saying that people ought to work for a living. This is the argument, surely, for more jobs in the public sector – that we will not pay someone to sit at home on the social, but we will give them a job in government services so they can earn themselves a living. Our core support comes from millions of people who do just that – work for a living. They will LOVE it if the Labour Party was to decide that everybody ought to labour.

A few years ago, Labour realised that it had got on the wrong side of the immigration debate, and that – whatever it actually did – it needed to ‘talk tougher’ on immigration.

Is it possible that the same is true now for Welfare?

On Wednesday I had the great privilege of watching part of the debate on the Welfare Bill. The focus was the retiming of benefit applications, and how it would affect people who had long-term, incredibly unpredictable diseases like cancer. The Labour Party was brilliant – unanswerable. The Tories either sat in uncomfortable silence or rose to agree. The Liberal woman who tried to support the Bill made a complete fool of herself. It was an example of opposition at its best – seeking out errors and injustices in the proposed legislation.

But it is a side of Labour that few people will ever see.

All the public see is an embarrassingly silent Labour leadership who look equivocal on Welfare reform and who certainly don’t have ‘a stance’ on the issue.

For this, as with so many things, we need a POLICY!

I cannot say what that policy should say – I don’t think it should be a case of ‘guessing the public mind’.

Why hasn’t the Party opened up a debate, so that it can discuss through with its supporters what we feel about this, and develop a policy which is consistent, fair and reasonable … and which we can then tell people about?

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