As the Tory’s Benefit Reform Juggernaut continues to smash its way through the Benefit System, with this week’s introduction of a universal benefit payment, public opinion is broadly divided into two camps on the issue. The majority bray about ‘scroungers’ and nod in vigorous approval with the rhetoric of people such as George Osborne who talk of the closed blinds of idle neighbours. The polar opinion comes from the ‘Welfare Defenders,’ who in support of the Welfare State deflect criticism of it towards other areas such as tax avoidance by large companies; as they look to create an ideology led uprising.
Both are wrong.
To bastardise the Blair/Clinton political concept a ‘Third Way’ is needed, and if the Labour Party had any sense they would be positioning themselves accordingly.
A Third Way allows for a workable and innovative course on welfare reform; namely an acceptance that social security spending cannot continue unchecked, set against an appreciation that the electorate need to be re-educated on the myths around benefit payments. This would allow for the more abhorrent of the Coalition’s welfare policies to be opposed and progressive alternatives put forward in their place.
The Department for Welfare and Pensions is a behemoth, between 2011-12 £159bn was spent on benefits (23% of all public spending). In these recessionary times it is only sensible that this figure is assessed and any inefficiencies identified and reduced. To argue otherwise is nonsensical and more pertinently unlikely to be well received by the electorate who, let’s remember, have been fed a diet of divisive language on welfare spending for many months by the Tories.
As Tony Blair recently proclaimed merely defending the status quo is not enough. A Third Way necessitates an acceptance that certain reforms are, in principle, correct. For example the reasoning behind the £26,000 benefit per annum payment cap is a sensible one. Benefits should not become a disincentive to employment, especially at a time when many working households across the country are feeling a squeeze on their disposable income. Those who bleat their opposition to this cap neglect to mention that for a taxpayer to take home a similar amount they would have to be earning a gross salary of circa £40,000.
To win the argument sensible concessions need to be made, by doing this it can be shown to the electorate (and floating voters in particular) that a protest is not being proffered for protest’s sake. But this position needs to be built upon, with a three stage approach that shows the electorate you have the confidence to tackle the issue of welfare reform head on.
Firstly one needs to passionately dispel certain benefit myths. A recent TUC poll suggested that 41% of people believed the entire welfare budget went to the unemployed; a gross misunderstanding. In truth half of UK benefit spending goes on state pensions. In comparison the disability living allowance accounts for 8% of the budget and jobseeker’s allowance only 3%. Benefit fraud is also cited as a huge issue; in reality the DWP’s own, recent publication estimated fraud to account for 0.7% of the bill (a smaller percentage than that attributed to errors). This clarification of the facts needs to be made frequently and with the same vigour as those who ignorantly attack the principles of a Welfare State.
This process is of fundamental importance as it begins to restructure the debate onto the correct path, providing a platform to discredit the more ill thought out policies of the Coalition before setting out one’s own progressive alternatives.
A simple realignment of the facts is not enough as vast swathes of the electorate do not care about ideology alone. This is where the ‘welfare defenders’ get it wrong. They speak of a collective reaction from the ground upwards to tackle these reforms; but this is pure fantasy. Poll Tax scale riots will not be forthcoming on this issue. Where the Conservatives have been successful in this area is to find a rhetoric that chimes with peoples’ inherent self-interest. Owen Jones may extend the retort that just because you’ve been mugged (for example by flatlining private sector pay) your neighbour should not be mugged too (for example by reduced benefit payments); but the majority are not feeling so altruistic as they peer into the economic gloom that submerges them. My neighbour has been mugged too? Good comes the reply.
Instead the electorate need to be engaged, in the middle ground, and persuaded that a progressive process is the right answer.
The Opposition have not done this. Labour have become a protest party on the welfare question, in the worst way. A protest party offering no real alternative, inexplicitly allowing the Coalition to set the agenda and, depending on what suits at the time, to paint them into a corner of either implicit acceptance or portray them as supporters of laziness. It’s been too easy for the Government.
The second step should be relatively easy. Few policies are so ostentatiously divisive as the bedroom tax. This farcical scheme unnecessarily penalises separated parents and couples who use a ‘spare’ bedroom whilst one of them recovers from illness (to name but a few groups). What’s more it is so obviously impractical; as Phil Collins has noted just wait until the real effects of the full scale implementation are felt. There are other odious examples, such as the over intrusive nature of ATOS assessments.
The final and most important step is to offer truly progressive answers to the question of welfare reform. To take this stance provides credence to the retorts against the conventional wisdom on welfare and the Government’s current policy agenda.
The New Labour years showed that the electorate are supportive of progressive ideas, the minimum wage legislation being an example; therefore Labour need to have courage of their convictions to think boldly. Both their living wage policy and proposals to divert housing benefit payments from the pockets of private landlords to the building of more social housing are reassuring. More of the same needs to follow. These policies would help to reduce the social security budget without the unnecessary ‘scrounger’ versus ‘striver’ speak; as well as providing other indirect benefits. But the Labour Party should not be afraid to go further.
To flap between status quo preservation and awkward silence is not a suitable challenge to the Coalition’s onslaught, only with a progressive agenda can the battle be won.