Putting the cap into capitulation

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.

An immigration debate Labour cannot win

Labour is drifting into an immigration debate which it cannot win because it is framed by the right.

The Tories, desperately seeking a diversion from their failing austerity program, have launched a new set of economic policies to isolate and scapegoat immigrants.

The proposals are part of a new bidding war with UKIP, who are driving the same bandwagon with their ‘end open-door immigration’ message.

All talk of non-aggression pacts between the two is off the table as UKIP increasingly take support in opinion polls and a number of councillors defect from the Tories.

For David Cameron, with no economic growth in sight and protests against austerity increasing, the next stage of his divide-and-rule approach is to focus on immigrants, who he claims are taking advantage of the benefit system.

Not a week goes by without a Daily Express or Daily Mail front page attack on immigrants ‘swamping’ public services, taking advantage of ‘soft-touch Britain’ through ‘health tourism’ and ‘bogus colleges’.

Cameron has now said if migrants don’t have a job after six months ‘their benefits will end unless they have a genuine chance of finding work’. He also plans to impose limits on migrants rights to housing and access to health services.

None of this will do anything to improve the economy. As Jonathan Portes says, statistics show migrants place a less than proportionate burden on the welfare state and public services.

The groundwork for this message is prepared with an unrelenting message that ‘immigration got out of control under Labour’ and that too many were entering the country.

But rather than challenge that, Labour is agreeing. On Thursday, Ed Miliband said, ‘On immigration we made mistakes in office. We can’t just defend what we did in the past.’

On the same day, Lord Glasman, said of Ed Miliband’s leadership, ‘I think he’s talking much more patriotically, there’s a recognition in relation to immigration for example that the figures were too high.’

Yvette Cooper too has outlined how Labour could restrict European migrants access to welfare benefits, demonstrating how the party leadership has fallen in step with the Tories.

But this is a narrative set by the right that only they can win with. We can only lose votes by making concessions to the right’s anti-immigrant campaign.

To rebuild its winning coalition, Labour needs to challenge the right with a positive message that immigration provides a substantial benefit to Britain and to ensure that, we need to have that debate out in the party.

That’s why I’m speaking at Next Generation Labour’s ‘Challenge the Tory scapegoating of immigrants’ meeting with Diane Abbott MP, Claude Moraes MEP and the economist Jonathan Portes from NIESR on 8th May.

I hope you can join me.


Collusion with cutters won’t win it for Labour

Sunday’s Observer article, ‘Ed Miliband to wage war on Osborne over benefit cuts, was interesting, in that it revealed some of the darker tendencies of the Blairite right’s apparent collusion with Cameron and Osborne over the continued savaging of the country’s most basic mechanisms of social security. The first I could see to publicly associate themselves with the ‘senior Labour insider’ was former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who outed herself in an article for Progress, ‘The Osborne Trap’, as a member of the pro-cuts ‘caucus’.

Smith’s message, one that veterans of the worst extremities of New Labour’s triangulation strategy will know all too well, is that, whatever our own personal opinions on the policies concerned, what is priority is what the polling says, as therein lies the perpetual nirvana that is an election victory. But ignoring for a moment the technical or strategic reasons why an ‘anti-scrounger’ narrative harms rather than enhances Labour’s electoral chances, let’s just be clear what Smith’s message is saying, the part that I am most uncomfortable with. She says that the Tories want to give off the image of Labour as a party which ‘cares more about those unwilling to work than those struggling in work and who are careless with taxpayers’ money.’ So then, does she offer a compelling exposition as to why this is wholly hypocritical, given the Coalition government’s austerity agenda has kept people out of work and on the dole, costing the Exchequer more in benefit payments? No, she merely concedes that,’This is a nasty way of pitting one set of poor people against another set, but the Tories’ polling will tell them that this is a strong message with voters.’

There has to be more to politics than this ruthless segmentation of the issues on the basis of what chimes well with a focus group and what doesn’t. What is a political movement without values underpinning the existence of it? In the labour movement, we show compassion to those on the lowest incomes, those who genuinely struggle daily. This should be the cornerstone of our values, we should support to right to dignity in and out of work. If our movement doesn’t defend the poorest and most vulnerable, we cannot complain when the Tories continue to champion the concerns of millionaires, bankers and big business. If Labour equivocates on the need to be the chief advocate of the welfare state, which protects both those in employment and the unemployed alike, it only makes it easier for Cameron and Osborne to openly hack away at it until it no longer exists.

The ‘lost five million voters’ narrative is one that has been widely discussed in Labour circles, and certainly deserves a strong hearing in the context of this debate. Jacqui Smith rightly talks about the kind of response she gets on the doorstep. I must confess, I seldom get deficit hawks on the doorstep, but I do often get those who used to be part of the democratic process, usually ex-Labour voters, and have dropped out during the New Labour years, and who we now write-off as non-voters and therefore useless to the game of electoral politics. Or those who were never in the game to begin with, who saw politics as offering nothing for them. These aren’t the kind of people who were disgusted with expenses, or disappointed at the failure to secure electoral reform, these are people who were politicised at a time when a Labour government was seen to be not too dissimilar from the policies of the Thatcher and Major years. We know that’s not true, we know that New Labour did an enormous amount for the lowest paid, but we also know that no amount of grandstanding over the minimum wage or tax credits is enough to fire up even a handful of those five million voters who abandoned the Labour Party and disappeared into the political abyss.

I don’t want to fall into the same kind of thinking as Jacqui Smith by obsessing over the polling implications of support for the welfare state, but it is worth remembering that as long as Labour compromises on the issues closest to its core supporters, the energy and spirit of those most likely to vote Labour is weakened, and the likelihood of a Labour government is less and less assured. The historical certainty of this can be seen in 1951, in 1979 and in 2010, where Labour governments, pulled to the right by the demands of capital, lost power to a more right-wing and ideologically driven Conservative government than the one that preceded it. That Cameron and Osborne are finishing off the last vestiges of the post-war social democratic settlement – the NHS, local government, and the welfare state – is a testament to that.

The kind of politicking that Smith and her pro-cuts caucus endorse is one that is empty of values, and reduces, rather than increases, the likelihood of a mobilised fightback against the Tory government. It will make it harder, not easier, for the Labour Party to present itself as a clear and compelling alternative at the next election. Ed Miliband is right to stand up for the right of the poorest and most vulnerable in society to a basic income that keeps up with the cost of living, and he would be wise to work with the Parliamentary Labour Party to ward off the voices of collusion.


Dan Jeffery is a councillor in Southampton