This Saturday Labour members will come together at Birkbeck College to discuss how Labour can offer an investment based alternative to the Government’s failed austerity agenda.
One of the key debates will be over how to embolden the front-bench to stand up to the coalition’s smears and ensure that future Labour Government invests in a social security system which supports the most vulnerable and eradicates poverty. As on immigration, social security is an issue where the Labour leadership has been reluctant to talk about its record in government but a proper assessment of the facts point to how it can turn its perceived weakness into a genuine strength.
In recent weeks Ian Duncan Smith has taken to calling Labour ‘the welfare party’. As a label it hasn’t stuck but for many the argument behind it has, namely that Labour spent too much on social security during it’s time in Government. Unfortunately Labour frontbenchers have been all too willing to accept this narrative. Comments by Liam Byrne, while still shadow Minister for Work and Pensions, that a future Labour Government would not ‘restore the status quo’ and by his successor Rachel Reeves about being tougher than the Tories on benefits legitimise Tory arguments that the social security bill is too high.
No-one would argue that a Labour Government shouldn’t look to deliver value for money for the taxpayer on social security but the truth is this is exactly what the last Labour Government did. Yes, spending increased but measures such as the expansion of tax credits and allowing the Disability Living Allowance and Independent Living Fund budgets to meet the needs of disabled people, helped significantly reduce poverty during Labour’s thirteen years in Government. Investment in social security worked. In 1997/98 28% of the population lived in absolute poverty in the United Kingdom by the end of Labour’s time in office this had almost been cut in half to around 15%. 2.3 million children and 2 million pensioners were lifted out of poverty in this time. Most impressively after progress in reducing poverty stalled between 2004 and 2008 Labour investment ensured that even during the recession the numbers living in absolute poverty fell again by 1.1 million. This is one of the Brown Government’s finest achievements and one which is not talked about nearly enough.
Simply championing Labour’s achievements would do little to convince voters if it did not contrast very sharply with their experience under the coalition. Since 2009/10 poverty has been on the rise again. Absolute poverty has increased by 1.4 million including 300,000 children and 200,000 pensioners. 340,000 people now rely on foodbanks as a source of food. Real-term cuts to benefits such as the work-related activity element of Employment and Support Allowance and the introduction of punitive measures such as the bedroom tax and benefits cap have mean the situation is likely to get worse by 2015. If Ian Duncan Smith wants to stoop to childish name-calling then the Poverty Party would seem a pretty accurate label for the Tories at the moment.
Labour therefore shouldn’t be ashamed of its record on social security while in Government and shouldn’t engage in the Tories’ ‘who can be toughest’ competition. Instead it can campaign on one very clear message on social security. Absolute poverty has increased under the Tories. Labour will reduce it.