Despite attempts to spin it otherwise Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday on social security represents a complete capitulation. Capitulation to the Tories, capitulation to the media and capitulation to the Blairites within the Labour Party who for months have been trying to push him into accepting many of the Government’s welfare cuts. Unfortunately despite abandoning some of the most vulnerable in our society this capitulation will fail to satisfy those calling for a tougher stance on benefits. Instead if Labour is to win the welfare argument a braver stance is required.
The key policy announcement in Miliband’s speech was the introduction of a three year cap on ‘structural welfare spending’. Let’s be very clear ‘structural welfare spending’ includes the benefits that the most vulnerable in society are dependent on; Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Carers Allowance etc. A cap, combined with the admission that a future Labour Government would see the current Government’s spending plans as a starting point, suggests that the Labour leadership is accepting the welfare cuts; such as the 25% cut in the DLA budget; time limit on work related activity ESA and the change of indexation from the Retail Price Index to lower Consumer Price Index; which have caused such harm to disabled and vulnerable people in recent years.
In fact a cap could mean a future Labour Government could be forced to cut even further depending on the level at which it was set. Another policy outlined was plans to increase Jobseekers’ Allowance but increase the qualifying period for the support to people who had worked for five years. This increase would exclude young people, many carers and disabled people moving from Incapacity benefit or Employment and Support Allowance in one foul swoop.
Some, including some of the major trade unions, have praised Miliband’s speech for offering a clear alternative to the Tories. Much of this praise has centred on rhetoric around housing and the living wage. Unfortunately this was not matched by policies announced. There was little detail on how to roll out the living wage and the youth jobs guarantee could end up subsidising minimum wage employers. On Labourlist Mark Ferguson argued that the cap on benefits will allow Labour to take real action to curb housing costs yet hearing Liam Byrne on Radio 4 stating that rent controls would be a step too far suggests that this action will fall well short of what is required.
Ed Miliband claimed the rationale behind his policy announcements was that “people’s faith in social security has been shaken when it appears that some people get something for nothing and other people get nothing for something”. This backed is up by opinion poll after opinion poll which indicates that the public feel that at present welfare payments are too generous. This is unsurprising given the benefits narrative portrayed in the media. Earlier this week Nick Robinson referred to spending on DLA as ‘out of control’. No balance, no attempt to explain the importance of DLA on disabled people’s lives just a complete acceptance of the Tory line from the supposedly impartial BBC’s chief political correspondent.
Unfortunately for Ed Miliband his efforts to win over the media by accepting their welfare myths is doomed to failure. As Mark Serwotka has pointed out Labour are simply unable to out flank the Tories to the right on welfare. On the 1 O’clock news following his speech the BBC’s Norman Smith was already highlighting that Labour would not be ‘credible’ on welfare unless the public could see where the ‘pain’ was going to come from. If the BBC are openly advocating deeper welfare cuts it won’t be long before the rest of the media follow.
Instead Labour should be brave and look to fight for social security on their own terms. Earlier this week Ed Balls rejected claims the last Labour Governments overspent public money, Ed Miliband should take the same approach to social security. We should be proud, for example, that we oversaw a social security system which ensured that even in a period of recession child poverty fell. While this may be a daunting task he should take heart that in the past year when Labour has been prepared to fight the Tories over specific cuts to benefits such as the 1% cap and bedroom tax opinion polls show the public have supported the party’s stance. While such an approach would take real courage the alternative is capitulation and defeat.