It’s rare to be able to say that a weekend with no major political events is of great significance, but this weekend may well have been one such. The story in the Observer that Ed Miliband is going to ‘wage war’ on George Osborne over benefit cuts following the Autumn Statement was backed by a number of interviews by leading Labour figures such as Ed Balls and a series of important articles challenging the myths and stereotypes of ‘benefit recipients’ and ‘welfare scroungers’, including by Will Hutton and Owen Jones.
There was also an important letter to the Observer from 60 charities and organisations pointing out the risks of the latest ‘punitive’ and ‘unfair’ cuts to children and other vulnerable people, arguing that ‘The truth is that the vast majority of those who rely on benefits and tax credits are either in work, have worked, or will be in work in the near future. They and their families are making their contribution to society and are entitled to genuine security, as Beveridge intended.’
It feels like Labour might just be shaking off the craven attitude to welfare that has dogged it for many years. Of course it’s possible to see the dilemma involved in speaking out against the dominant narrative of the deserving and the undeserving poor, more recently described as the ‘strivers’ versus the ‘shirkers’. But some elements of Labour have been complicit in creating the narrative and it is time for a new approach.
It is nothing new for the Tories to seek to victimise, stigmatise and blame certain groups for the ills of society but recently it has been raised to an art form, notably by Iain Duncan Smith. People on welfare benefits, council tenants, disabled people, homeless people are subject to endless propaganda and anecdotal insults: scroungers, subsidised by the state, swinging the lead, queue jumpers, reinforced every day by the majority of newspapers.
Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather recently revealed how deliberate this strategy is within Government. The purpose is twofold: to divert blame from those responsible for unemployment, poverty and homelessness onto the victims themselves, and to set a political trap for Labour which will identify it as the Party of welfare. But as always, there is more than one political trap available: the more Labour is seen to support welfare cuts the bigger the hole it has to scramble out of, and the divisions in the Coalition are becoming more open. Vince Cable this weekend said that Ministers should not insult and demonise people on benefits, most of who are out of work for no fault of their own.
Ed Miliband has been most successful when he has been politically courageous and he should seek to get this debate on to positive ground, enabling Labour to defend vital social programmes with greater legitimacy. This approach was well summed up by Rachel Reeves when she said ‘George Osborne is even cutting maternity pay for mums who take time off work to be with their newborn baby. We need to get the benefits bill down, but the way to do that is to get the economy moving and get people back to work.’
There is also endless mileage in alternative arguments: the constant revelations that the super-rich and big corporations don’t pay much tax; the huge subsidies flowing to landlords instead of building more homes; the fact that much of the welfare bill goes to support people in work; and the increasingly muddy dividing line between work and unemployment as growing millions of people are underemployed, in and out of casual and part-time work and facing constant uncertainty. It is entirely possible to defend the working poor whilst refusing to join in the attack on those who are not able to work or have no jobs to go to – an attack being led by those that Owen Jones, with his usual flourish, calls the ‘ideologically crazed cabal’.
If Labour needs to be brave, the real fault line remains in the Coalition. We know the Tories will defend the rich and attack the poor. But are the Lib Dems at last willing to stand up for the decent society they say they believe in?