Shape the welfare debate on our own terms, writes John Percival

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Earlier this month, Owen Jones wrote an excellent piece attacking Liam Byrne’s ‘capitulation’ to the right on welfare reform, responding to an article Byrne had written outlining the Labour front-bench’s position on the issue. Rather naively, I decided to reserve judgement until some actual policy detail was outlined, but as the leadership prepares to instruct its Peers not to block the Government’s £26,000 benefit cap it is clear that the Labour Party is failing the most vulnerable in their greatest time of need for a generation. More importantly, the leadership is missing a crucial opportunity to shape the debate on this issue and highlight the true damage being caused by Tory policies.

During his Q & A session at conference, Ed Miliband was asked by a disabled party member whether or not he’d stand up for disabled people in light of the Tory onslaught on their entitlements (a 20% cut to the DLA budget, time-limiting ESA and a cap on housing benefit to highlight just three). Disappointingly, he chose to focus his response on attacking people on out-of-work benefits. This approach has been replicated by the party leadership whenever welfare reform has on the public agenda. Presumably the argument goes that the public’s attitude has hardened when it comes to welfare, as highlighted by the recent Social Attitudes Survey, and that Labour needs to reflect this if we are to take power in 2015. Recent events however, have shown that the picture is much more complex.

Recently, we saw the publication of the Spartacus Report highlighting the impact of the Government’s DLA reforms and misinformation published by the Government. The response was incredible. Within hours #spartacusreport was trending on twitter. Newspapers as diverse as the Daily Mail and Guardian were publishing blogs highlighting the unfairness of the proposals and the comments from the public were almost universally supportive. This challenges the view that the public are inherently reactionary, when it comes to welfare and that they are more than prepared to oppose changes to benefits that will hurt the most vulnerable.

For me, Ed Miliband’s most effective performance at PMQs was on 15th June 2011 when he riled the Prime Minister by articulately outlining exactly how the Government’s reform of ESA will hit cancer patients. I believe this approach should be replicated, with Labour continuing to highlight specific examples of where Government’s changes will hit the most vulnerable hardest. There are countless examples of this. Did you know, for example, that as a result of the changing of indexation that benefit increases are calculated by from RPI to CPI, at the end of this financial year carers in receipt of Carers’ Allowance will be over £46 worse off than they would have been, had the change not been made. At the end of the next financial year the figure will be over £100. This effect of the change is something I have not seen reported on in the mainstream media.

By repeatedly highlighting, the unfairness of the Government’s reforms, Labour can shift the debate on welfare reform away from talk of benefit cheats and of ‘scroungers’ and onto how the Tories are harming the lives of the most vulnerable. Not only will we be giving a voice to those most in need but we will be shaping the debate, in a way that captures the mood of the public without ‘capitulation’ to the agenda of the right.


John Percival tweets at @johnwpercival