Labour’s welfare stance isn’t working

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 19 March 2013 in Diary
The Labour Party is never going to be seen as ‘tougher’ than the Tories on welfare, so it must take a different, stronger approach


Besides immigration, the one issue Labour will never outflank the Tories on in the minds of the public is welfare. However poorly we treat the poor (and some of the things we did in government are shameful, not least unleashing – and ennobling – Lord Freud) the public never see us as "tougher" on welfare than the Tories.
There was a moment there when it looked like Labour had glimpsed this truth. As we stood up and opposed the Welfare Uprating Bill and the Bedroom Tax, it seemed Labour had finally given up on posing as the punishers of the so-called shirkers.
Last month, when the government's disastrous Workfare scheme came a-cropper in the courts, Labour activists could feel a certain sense of "we told you so". It's a dreadful scheme. It is less successful at finding the unemployed work than doing nothing. Of course it is – what incentive is there to create new jobs when you can force people to do the labour for free?
But Iain Duncan Smith has never been a man who knows when to lie down. So instead of accepting defeat gracefully, he’s seeking to change the law so that those who might have benefitted from the court’s decision to reimburse sanctions from those who refused workfare will not be compensated.
Labour has made some important changes to this rushed and ridiculous bill. It will only be those who might have received sanctions under other programmes that will not be compensated. Thanks to a Labour amendment, those who have been wrongly sanctioned will still be able to seek compensation. Having got these amendments onto the bill, Labour are now planning to abstain rather than oppose the bill.
But there are two key problems with this approach.
Firstly, it continues Labour’s ridiculous record of doing good by stealth. This was bad enough in government, when we refused to make the arguments from a leading position. In opposition it leaves us invisible and hiding from the glare of a debate the public are having anyway. We aren’t going to outflank Iain Duncan Smith on the right on welfare, but we could easily – should easily – outflank them on competence. But not if we refuse to stand up and be counted.
Secondly, while it is quite right for Labour to support sanctions against those who refuse to take part in a scheme that works, this becomes less clear when people are boycotting a scheme that is proven to be less efficient than nothing. Why should the unemployed be forced to take up a scheme that is proven will hinder not help their job prospects?
By tinkering with the Bill rather than leading the fight against workfare, Labour has once again ducked the challenge of taking on the welfare debate. We could have used this opportunity to challenge the government on their competence, but we were too afraid they’d hit back on our weakness of compassion. We have to accept the weakness argument is not one we can or will (or perhaps should) win.
Labour has to decide what it means when we talk about welfare reform. If all we intend to do is ape the Tories in a macho punishment contest we will fail. Because the public refuse to see us like that however hard we tried. So let’s try and take this onto territory we can win. Let’s stand up and be counted and take the Tories to the mat over the shoddy and incompetent way they are running the welfare system into the ground.
The government believe that what matters is being seen to punish those who are unemployed. Their broadbrush approach may catch the small proportion of those who refuse work. But it also catches millions unemployed through no fault of their own. And they can’t even do that competently as Workfare, the Bedroom Tax and the forthcoming disaster that is Universal Credit all attest.
Labour’s message must be different. What matters is what works. What matters is work. If Labour put work – paid for and properly valued – at the heart of our welfare policy for everyone who can, we can come out swinging. Let’s take the fight to the Tories and keep it there.

Tags: Emma Burnell, Labour, Welfare

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