As you might recall, I put up quite a long post about this topic recently.
John Rentoul has made a similar point in relation to todays PMQs, suggesting that to expose the divisions in the Coalition on housing benefit leads to the impression that Labour is on the side of high welfare bills.
It’s an important point, one that I think Labour has to be aware of. It’s clear that the general principle of reducing welfare spending has broad support, notwithstanding that welfare spending as a proportion of GDP, is not in fact historically high.
What we need to understand is the strategic bind that the Conservatives seek to put Labour in. Duncan Weldon wrote a very good post on that very topic, and the question of how to respond to any particular reform needs to come back to the answer to that central strategic challenge – how to deal with a Conservative attempt to paint the fifference between Labour and the coalition as effectively being that we are soft on welfare and high on tax.
I’d argue four general points.
1. Keep coming back to Jobs
Economic growth is the engine that drives everything. If we are reducing unemployment, increasing tax income and lowering welfare payments, we are succeeding. Osborne wants to catch in a trap. Part of the way out is to point that he’s the one risking the leap into a pit.
Our objective should be first and foremost to lower budget constraints by reducing unemployment. Whether it’s L-shaped, double dip, jobless recovery or just plain patchy recovery, the need to create jobs will be a key political constant.
2. Accept reforming principles, and state them loudly
We have to be loud on this, as if we’re not, the bit where we are tough on fraud is drowned out by the bit where we defend the poorest. Think “Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime”. We should never get into the position where we are defnding the apparently indefensible. We want welfare budgets to come down, and we should be proud of saying so. It’s a question of how we do it.
Instead of arguing the principles we need to accept them constantly, not least so we can…
3. Challenge the specifics.
While the principle of cutting budget deficits by cutting benefits are popular, the reality will be different. People generally supported the principle that Child Benefit should be reduced for the wealthy, but rejected the manner in which that principle was applied.
The argument shouldn’t be about scroungers versus hard workers, it should be about helping people into work not kicking them as they try and get back on their feet.
When it comes to equity, the Opposition should be clearly the voice that states when the burden of cuts is falling unfairly. Speaking of a fair burden we should…
4. Focus on “Welfare for the Wealthy”.
The political system contains huge numbers of breaks and hidden bonuses that benefit those who are not just comfortable but very well off. People who use them take them for granted. They don’t think they’re ripping of the system, just managing their liabilities. It’s exactly the same thought process that leads someone to play the benefits system for the most they can get.
So every time the Tories attack a Welfare family, we should agree, but challenge them to also attack the “welfare wealthy”, those who don’t pay their fair share, avoid their responsibilities and have the cheek to lecture the rest of us.
We shouldn’t shrink from condemning anyone who rips off the community, whether a Benefit Fraudster or a business that gets special treatment, or a milionaire using tax breaks to hide their liability. If the Tories want to make claiming what you’re entitled to a moral issue, that cuts both ways.
(Update: 17.43 – on looking at this again, I’ve corrected some spelling and numbering errors, added two misinlg links and added a couple of sentences to clarify what was a v rushed post. These are in italics)
Anyway, this is all a bit off the cuff, and might be totally wrong, so welcome your thoughts.