2nd March 2016
Talking ’bout Welfare
Analyses into the reasons for Labour’s defeat in May 2015 have been done to death. There have been some, like a sizable number of supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, who have argued that Labour lost because it was ‘not left-wing enough’. I have no truck with this argument because it fails to take into account what Labour’s policies were at the time (rent controls, price freezes and mansion taxes) and how these could possibly described as anything other than ‘left wing’. Not only this, but those who argue that Labour was not seen as any different to the Tories have actually failed to look at what voters themselves have told us.
Sensible analysis has shown that there were five key reasons why Labour lost:
- 1) Ed Miliband was not fancied as a potential Prime Minister.
- 2) England was fearful of a government held hostage by the Scottish National Party in the event of their rightly predicted trouncing in Scotland.
- 3) Labour was not seen as economically credible.
- 4) Labour was seen as out-of-touch on the issue of immigration.
- 5) Labour was seen as out-of-touch on welfare.
Now with Ed Miliband gone and Jeremy Corbyn in place the SNP are rampant and set for a period of prolonged dominance in Scotland whilst verdicts on Labour’s failings on immigration and the economy seem to get weekly comment. It is the issue of welfare, however, that I believe has not had a fair hearing. To me this is very strange given our movement’s history and how much agitation is stirred up by issues like the ‘Bedroom Tax’ or the work of Atos.
I think it is fair to say that Labour has been very lazy when it comes to the issue of welfare. Labour’s stock position since leaving government in 2010 has been disgust and opposition at Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms at the Department for Work & Pensions whilst simultaneously refusing in many cases to promise to reverse them. Even had they made such a promise, however, Labour’s idle thinking on the issue would have remained self-evident. The much-heralded government u-turn on tax credit cuts, was another missed opportunity for Labour to do some serious thinking on welfare.
Labour needs to start thinking seriously about welfare and what it stands for. The conversation has to begin on the basis of first principles so brilliantly espoused by Tony Blair many years ago; welfare should be a hand-up not a hand-out. This first principle, that welfare should support people into work, should not be controversial. As has been said a few times before we are the Labour Party; the clue is in the name.
But many veteran Labourites, not all to the left of the party, while invoking the “spirit of ‘45” and Beveridge, ignore the realities of what this system involved. Even under that great, progressive post-war government that did so much to create a welfare state capable of supporting people, the system was firmly geared towards supporting people into work to the extent that civil servants would have the discretion to give meagre sums of money, or even none, to those they saw as ‘scroungers’. Of course with this there needs to be an acceptance that there will be some who cannot work for a variety of reasons; the state should be unapologetic in providing support here.
For this first principle to work, it must be tied to another; that welfare is universal. This notion has been, with the best of intentions, misappropriated as a reason to object to any attempt at integrating any form of means-testing or discrimination between claimants into the welfare system. This ignores the fact that this already exists; after all we discriminate, rightly, so that the system supports those with children or with a disability. Universal benefits do not, and should not mean everyone getting the same, but that those benefits are available to all when they need them. It also lends itself to contributory systems whereby people get out what they pay in, and so feel ownership and a personal connection to the system.
With these first principles established, welfare policy should flow fairly naturally to tackle the issues of the day.
The number of children living in poverty whose parents are working, now exceeds those living on poverty who are on benefits. This should be home turf for Labour. Tax credits are meant to prevent this, so how is it happening? If tax credits aren’t working, what is the alternative?
Not one to dodge an issue and having called for serious thinking on Labour, I have a suggestion of my own that I believe could mark a change of direction for Labour and its handling of this issue.
George Osborne has attempted to park his tanks on Labour’s lawn with his introduction of a national living wage which is to replace the minimum wage by the end of this parliament.
Labour should look to do the same by treading Tory turf and promising tax cuts. That is, a commitment to extend the personal tax allowance to the level of the national living wage. This simple measure would put more money in the pockets of working people who need it, while sending out a very clear message that Labour is on the side of those who do the right thing. It would also allow a proper phasing out of tax credits.
That’s just one Labour member’s idea of course. We need more.
By Cllr. Sean Woodcock
- Leader of the Opposition and Labour group on Cherwell District Council
- Parliamentary Candidate for Banbury Constituency, 2015 General Election