- Fri Apr 05, 2013 3:55 pm
Rude of me not to post Collins's article. Absent of its appalling headline, it doesn't look quite so awful.
Published at 12:01AM, April 5 2013
The voters have decided that we spend too much on welfare. Miliband must offer them more than silence in reply
Labour might easily lose, in 2015, an election it really ought to win and the reason will be that it didn’t understand what voters told it in 2010. When people were asked for an image to encapsulate the Labour Party, they told focus groups they imagined a man lying lazily on a sofa. That is a disaster for a party called Labour. There’s meant to be a clue in the name.
This week the tanker of politics started to turn. The benefit cap — which limits welfare payments so that no family can receive more than average after-tax household earnings — was introduced. Housing benefit cuts began to bite. Then the grotesque Mick Philpott became the stooge embodiment of all that is said to be wrong with a culture in which the idle take the rise out of the working population. We may look back on this as the week in which the coalition began to speak again to the British public while the forgetful Labour Party slunk back on to the sofa.
There are cool, practical objections to much that the Government is doing. Housing benefit costs £23.8 billion a year, a tenth of the welfare budget. But the problem with housing benefit is the housing, not the benefit. There were three times as many families formed last year than there were houses built. Private rents have increased by 37 per cent over the past five years. This cannot be fixed by fiddling with benefit rates. Either build more houses or get ready to pay the bill.
The plan to take money off anyone with a spare bedroom is a joke policy that’s not funny. Most council housing was built to a single specification. There is nowhere to move into so families will move out, to costly private rented houses. For the same reason, Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, recently received a letter containing a persuasive analysis that the benefit cap would force people to move into expensive bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The letter was from Eric Pickles, his fellow Cabinet member.
These are good practical objections that ought to weigh heavily with Conservatives. But there is no doubt where the British people stand on the principle. In 1987, according to Ipsos MORI, 55 per cent of people thought that more should be spent on the poor even if it meant higher taxes. Now only 27 per cent agree. Seven out of ten people agree that the country needs to spend less on welfare.
To this unanswerable fact there has come silence from the Labour Party and vituperation from the Labour movement. The party has no policy to speak of. Last month Ed Miliband ordered his troops to abstain on a Commons vote on welfare sanctions and 40 of them ignored him. The field has been left clear for the writers and pundits of the Left to parade their synthetic anger, happily denouncing the motives of ministers who, in the fond imagining of the Spartist columnist, are cutting benefits for the sheer joy of it.
There is no sense on the Labour side that the best response to the cuts is not to get angry, but to get even-handed. For example, as soon as George Osborne had done an interview in which he made the unexceptional point that the likes of Mick Philpott should not enjoy the unbounded largesse of the State, Andy McDonald, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough, accused him of “typical Tory demonisation of anyone on benefits”.
There is no better illustration of the self-harm of Labour’s position than that it is driving me into the arms of the Tory backbencher Bernard Jenkin. I usually regard Mr Jenkin as the prime specimen of perspective-free hyperbole on Europe and tax cuts. But Mr Jenkin was one of a number of Tories who suggested that child benefit be limited to the first two children; this would save £3.3 billion if it were applied to all recipients.
There are more than 85,000 households that claim for five children (!90 familes claim for ten) and almost a quarter of a million that claim for four. Many working people take the responsible view that, though they would love another child, they cannot afford it. What’s wrong with embodying the same standard in the benefits system?
Mr Jenkin and his friends on the Tory Right are leading this debate because Labour is ceding it to them. Yielding to the temptation of being annoyed, Labour is asking to be smashed in one of the few debates that is a genuine election-loser. This was the week in which a Labour policy vacuum started to show.
The first thing Labour has to do is to counter Mr Osborne’s argument that these welfare cuts are “inevitable”. This is the line of a man who has thrown you out of a balloon and told you it is inevitable you will hit the ground. But Labour has no plan and so nobody listens. If Mr Miliband had even a rudimentary account of the cuts he was prepared to make then there might be an audience for his protests at the cuts that he thinks are unjust.
Labour could create more room for its anger by being bold about spending. Paul Johnson, of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has pointed out that the Government is exempting 40 per cent of spending from austerity and then kidding us that the drastic cuts to other departments are inevitable. There is no reason, apart from politics, why the NHS budget should not take some of the pain. There is no reason, apart from politics, why wealthy pensioners should receive free bus passes, TV licences and the winter fuel allowance. There is no reason, apart from politics, why old people should be insulated from cuts to council tax benefits.
If there were a pain-free option it would already have been taken. Every decision is fraught with the risk of creating a new band of losers. But that is the leadership task of the moment and, by choosing to oppose the welfare consequences of austerity with no viable alternative, Labour is asking to be placed on the side of those who want the welfare bill to rise rather than those who want it to fall.
Of course the Labour leadership retorts that employment would make all the difference; but that takes them on to another ground, the economy, on which they are not winning. The absence of a constructive Labour voice from the welfare debate means that the Left is associated only with the shrill shriek of opposition.
The Labour Party cannot win in a state of deluded comfort, enjoying the opportunities for indignation that austerity affords. On the NHS the Labour book of lamentations is an echo of the public mood. On welfare it marks the unforgiving distance between the view from the Labour seminar room and the moral intuitions of the British people. Time for Mr Miliband to get up off the sofa.