Why Labour shouldn’t play the Tories’ game on welfare

These days, it’s almost conventional wisdom that welfare, like immigration, is an issue where the Tories have an unassailable political advantage.

But as a member of the committee which began scrutinising the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill this week, I’ve been reminded of just how tenuous this supposed advantage is.

The Government’s claim of a “mandate” for sweeping cuts rests largely on the fact that they’ve spent the last five years marching to the tune of right-wing press hysteria on welfare spending. The noise that is so often generated by sensational headlines about “Birmingham’s Benefits Queen”, to take just one example, too often serves as a distraction from the fact that the Government’s welfare policy lacks both compassion and logic.

It seems to me that we should approach this entire debate by rejecting the premise of the question. The Tories have attempted to frame the discussion on their own terms, claiming that spending on benefits is “unsustainable”. We should not play their game.

We should always remember that the facts simply do not back up claims like the repeated assertion that the last Labour Government allowed spending on benefits to spiral out of control.

The Office for Budget Responsibility’s Welfare Trends Report, which should be required reading for any Tory who wants to participate in a debate on this subject, explains that over the last three decades “the proportion of national income devoted to welfare spending has not shown a significant upward or downward trend over time”.

The Tories may claim that sweeping cuts are needed in order to make the benefits system more “sustainable”, but this relies on a definition which would mean that welfare spending has been “unsustainable” since the 1950s – a point of view which is plainly ridiculous.

The other myth, that benefits must be cut in the interest of “fairness”, has had remarkable staying power considering how wrong-headed it is.

Arguments like “people on benefits should face the same choices as those in work” (Iain Duncan Smith) and that welfare cuts achieve this by “empowering them to make choices in the same way as those in work do” (Priti Patel) may seem to have a superficial kind of logic to them.

But when you look at the people who would actually be affected by the Government’s proposals, in the overwhelming majority of cases you see people who do not in fact have the same set of choices available to them as Ministers would have you believe.  

What the Tories know, but won’t admit, is that most of the cuts proposed in their Bill would apply to people claiming a benefit that explicitly recognises the fact that work is not an option for them. This could be for any number of reasons – they could be people with long-term illnesses or disabilities, single parents with young children, who can’t get childcare to cover working hours, or they could have full-time caring responsibilities for sick or disabled relatives.

There is every reason for Labour’s approach to welfare reform to reflect a simple principle – that those who can work, should work. But cutting support for people who don’t have the option to work not only fails to achieve this, but also causes unnecessary suffering and distress along the way.

As a member of the committee I have tabled more than a dozen amendments to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, aiming both to expose the Government’s flawed logic and to introduce a little humanity to the debate – something that’s been in seriously short supply up to this point. 

The political “advantage” that the Tories claim on welfare policy is as much of a myth as the specious claims that they make in trying to justify these reckless cuts. The arguments to expose their approach for what it is – a fraud – are there to be made. Labour would be abdicating our responsibility as an opposition if we failed to make them.    

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