At the last shadow cabinet reshuffle Liam Byrne was downgraded; at the next he has to go.
Liam Byrne's epiphany
At the last election, with Labour failing across the country, Liam Byrne had an epiphany when he went doorstepping and found that 'ordinary' people (both working and on benefits) are wise to, and angry about, the benefit-cheating going on around them. Tapping into this general public anger about benefit scroungers, he came to believe that - to align itself with the mass of voters - the Labour Party needed to adopt a benefit-cuts, anti-scrounger narrative. This brought him, to all intents and purposes, into line with the Tory narrative on welfare.
Liam Byrne is not a traitor - he believes that he is securing the Labour Party with the electorate. In this he is, however, a man trapped by his conviction that Labour must do nothing that allows the Tories to accuse Labour of financial- and benefit-profligacy. He reads the polls, and the polls tell him that the public still accepts the need to balance the budget, and that there is still out there a huge and general anti-welfare, anti-unions prejudice which – Byrne holds - the Labour Party must not alienate if it ever wants to get elected.
To the Left, of course, Liam Byrne is nothing better than a wolf in wolf’s clothing.
Byrne’s Big Boo-boo
Some of Byrne's calls have been spectacularly inept – particularly, recently, the decision to abstain and allow the government to rescue its Poundland decision on workfare, which surely has to be one of the most incomprehensible tactical calls in history. The court’s ruling on Poundland not only overturned the government’s workfare policy, it removed the Department of Work and Pension’s right to impose sanctions on people who fail to meet DWP requirements. This not only removed a cornerstone of Tory treatment of the unwaged, it made the government liable to £150million damages in back-claims from people who had been sanctioned. The Tory bill, therefore, rushed through the Commons, simply retrospectively overturned the court’s ruling and ruled that the now-illegal sanctions were now legal after all.
If Byrne had insisted that the government recognise the judgement of the Courts – let’s face it, hardly a radical position to take – Labour could have made the DWP’s employment policies unworkable. The Tories would have been in chaos. The so-called Party of cuts would have been seen to have wasted £150m. The Labour Party could have sat back and watched the Tories struggling for the next two years to run their welfare policies without the right to sanction. IDS would have had to resign. That £150m, moreover, would have gone back to the people the DWP stole it from, been spent immediately, and helped to stimulate local economies! It would have been an absolute humiliation and disaster for the Tories.
A disastrous decision
Instead, however, Bryne chose to rescue IDS. Labour abstained and allowed the Tories to rush through its corrective legislation.
In doing so, Byrne legitimised DWP coercion, overturned a Court decision, and worst of all helped introduce the principle of retrospective legislation – a very dangerous principle to condone. He subjected benefit-claimants to years more of the injustice (which we all know has been going on) of being set impossible tasks to do, and then punished by removal of benefits when that task is not achieved.
At the same time, Byrne alienated the non-Labour Left … perhaps permanently – many will never vote Labour again. At present, there is nowhere valid for them to go … but if a realistic alternative to Labour turns up, you can bet that they will vote against Labour at the next election.
Why did Byrne do it?
So why, oh why, did Labour abstain? I speculate, of course, but I believe it is possible to trace Byrne’s decision back to his 2010 epiphany, and his underlying belief that it is ultimately a vote-loser to appear to support benefit claimants.
His ‘official’ explanation was that, stupid as the Tories had been, Labour could never be seen to sign up to a strategy which removed the DWP’s right to coerce … that it would have been governmentally irresponsible so to do.
Reading between the lines, however, I would guess that he so feared Labour being thereby labelled the ‘scrounger’s friend’ that this outweighed in his mind ALL the human rights, personal justice and political benefits opposing the government might have delivered.
So what’s my point?
The Left would be insane to deny Byrne’s basic premise – that there is a general public hostility to benefit scroungers. In one respect, Byrne is spot-on correct: if the Labour Party goes into the next election tainted with being the Party which will borrow to pay benefits, then it will not get elected.
But that does not mean that Byrne has got it right.
Both he and IDS, trapped in the Westminster bubble, think that the public – especially the poor public – support their ideological attack on benefits. They do not. The public support an attack on benefit cheats, but that does not automatically mean that they support a general attack on benefits.
Everybody who lives in a ‘normal’ area knows that benefit cheating goes on. IDS is correct when he says that the Welfare State has spawned benefit-liars. We all know the man with gammy knees, or a bad back, who hobbles painfully round on a stick … until he has had a few beers, whereupon he is up and disco-dancing with the rest. We all know the woman with a blue badge who goes on walking holidays in the Lake District. We all know the problem families who are a local crime-wave, but who appear to have access to unlimited funds on ‘the social’.
IDS and Byrne have interpreted this as a licence to toughen up welfare, to coerce and to cut. They have completely misunderstood their mandate. Their top-down, ideologically-imposed cuts have not stopped the benefit-cheats and the welfare-liars – they are still lying and cheating and bullying their way to benefits. No. Instead, the cuts are hurting the vulnerable and the needy. The people most hit by DWP coercion have been the Special Needs claimants, given a 10-page document to fill in overnight. The bedroom tax has hit loving grandmas, providing a room overnight for the grandchildren when their father gets drunk. The withdrawal of EMA has hit decent youngsters, clever enough to realise that going to 6th form will throw their family into poverty. The Council Tax benefit changes have hit working families. And so on.
The Mood WILL change
I tell you this, the poor have not yet got their head around what is happening. It may strike you as impossible to believe, given the news and the publicity, but many of them have not yet clicked what is going to happen to them. Many others have a head-in-the-sands hope that they will be able to ‘roll’ with the changes and survive.
That WILL change as the changes are implemented and begin to bite. Over the next two years people, used to the state as a safety-net, are going to redefine their views. For many good and decent – even working – people, the state is about to become the organisation which drives them into destitution and despair.
And when that happens, people are going to change their opinions on welfare. The ‘scrounger’ narrative will recede. The poor will become angry as they see themselves, their loved ones and their neighbours hit. The middle-class will start to demand welfare-justice, as they see the vulnerable suffer.
By the time that happens, Labour MUST have developed a different welfare strategy. The Party needs to realise that it is right to stop welfare-scrounging and cheating, but that the way to do this is to catch welfare-scroungers and welfare-cheats ... not to introduce universal draconian measures which catch only the decent and the needy.
It is not beyond the voters’ intelligence to understand such a policy. ‘Tough on the Cheats, There for the Needy’ is not a policy too-sophisticated for the electorate to comprehend.
Why Liam Byrne has to go
And, by that time, Byrne must have gone. He is not the man to introduce the new emphases which will be needed for 2015.
He is tainted as a Tory stooge. He has misread the public. He has made too many mistakes. And he has alienated the Left beyond redemption.
To win the next election, Labour MUST appeal to the centre ground; the Left is mad if it thinks otherwise.
But, to win the next election, Labour must also reach out to the alienated left. These people will never see Labour as the Party to implement their wishes, but they need to see Labour as worth a vote to keep the other lot out.
To do that, Labour needs to shed its image as would-be Tories in matters of welfare and worker’s rights.
To do that, Labour needs to remodel its policies on welfare and worker’s rights.
And it has to lose Liam Byrne.