People in new jobs frequently make their worst mistakes at the very beginning. I am hoping this is the case with Rachel Reeves and her ‘tougher than the Tories on welfare’ message in the Observer yesterday.
I tried to think why she might have decided to take this line. Perhaps she thought that it was important to stake out this position at the beginning, to create space for more nuanced policies later – but all that does is encourage the Tories to challenge you to go even further. Perhaps she was reacting to the infamous ‘boring snoring’ Newsnight incident and decided to blast herself into a more interesting category. Perhaps she mistakenly thought this was the line having read a couple of Liam Byrne’s earliest speeches.
Reeves has had some support from other commentators, including James Bloodworth on Left Foot Forward, who have argued that she represents the ‘realistic’ position that Labour needs to take to neutralise the Tories huge lead on ‘welfare’. The dominance of the right-wing agenda on welfare and the filtering of information in the mainstream media are such that the public have a seriously distorted view of the facts. Alternatives to the conventional wisdom are hard to come by, one of the reasons being that Labour has been far too supine on the issue over the years. Weakness just emboldens the right - in Reeves’ case to the point of being thanked for endorsing Iain Duncan Smith’s policies – ‘game set and match to IDS’ said Fraser Nelson. Well, I hope one lesson of the last few weeks is that it is time to stop being pushed around by the Daily Mail.
I would like to unpick her arguments a little. First, Reeves is correct to emphasise the importance of Labour’s compulsory jobs guarantee. The devil will be in the detail of delivery but it has to be right that Labour’s central policy should be to do everything possible to get people into jobs. I have no problem with a ‘carrot and stick’ approach but it is the carrot that is missing at present, not the stick.
Secondly, her approval of the Tories’ overall benefit cap, but with regional differences, is a re-interpretation of where Labour has got to on the issue. She puts too much emphasis on accepting the existing £26,000 limit and too little on the differences Labour would introduce. She failed to mention that it is effectively a brutal cap on housing benefit for large families in high rent London.
Thirdly, she is right to say that the charge that Labour Governments have been ‘soft on welfare’ is not right: the last Labour Government removed benefits from people unreasonably refusing to take jobs. And fourthly, she is right to focus on the extraordinary incompetence with which Duncan Smith has pursued his policies.
My main objection is around the use of language and the implied adoption of the Tory ‘narrative’ on ‘welfare’. Saying you will be ‘tougher than the Tories’ when their policies are vicious and punitive is simply unacceptable and challenges my normally acute sense of loyalty. She reverts to using the Tories’ favourite word ‘welfare’ rather than the recent front bench choice of the more neutral phrase ‘social security’. And the word ‘linger’ is straight out of the Tory lexicon. Her statement that ‘we will not allow people to linger on benefits’ ignores all the evidence that, when there are jobs, people take them. Unemployment is primarily a structural economic issue and is not about personal pathology – why else would there be a sudden increase in the number of ‘malingerers’ during a recession?
By validating the Tory narrative Labour fails to challenge the propaganda that the ‘cost of welfare’ is mainly about the lazy unemployed and that unemployment is about personal failure. It ignores the real crises in ‘welfare’ - the ageing population and the growing cost of credits and benefits to ‘hardworking people’ who have very low or irregular earnings.
Finally, conceding the narrative makes it much harder for Labour to communicate a genuine alternative – for example cutting the costs of social security not by punishing the poor but by creating employment, by getting people into jobs, by promoting the Living Wage and by building houses rather than paying huge amounts of housing benefit to subsidise high rents.
That’s the message we should want the public to hear.