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After Philpott: Labour should make a positive case for welfare

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled, as the Kevin Spacey character argues in The Usual Suspects, is convincing the world that he doesn’t exist.

Given our government’s success in persuading the electorate, millions of claimants included, that it doesn’t need the welfare state, I’m starting to suspect that Old Nick numbers among Lynton Crosby’s sources of inspiration.

The sheer crudity of the Daily Mail’s now infamous ‘Vile product of welfare UK’ front page, directly linking Mick Philpott’s murder of six kids to his receipt of benefits, probably came across as just that little bit too strident for the ostensibly detoxified mainstream of what claims to be no longer a nasty party.

But that didn’t stop George Osborne serving up a watered down version of this muck for the benefit of an audience of low-paid supermarket distribution workers the very same day, piggybacking on the inevitable furore to boost to his own media exposure. Only the cynical will suspect co-ordination here, and in this case, you can include me within the ranks of the cynical.

What also seems clear is that these notions are gaining traction. Look at some of the statistics contained in an otherwise lamentable piece by one-time Revolutionary Communist Party stalwart Brendan O’Neill. Which newspaper did it appear in, I hear you ask? Guess.

Ignore the gloating, almost hysterical, tone of the piece and the uncritical wholesale acceptance of questionable dependency culture sociology, imported directly from the US right. Set to one side the clichéd invocations of ‘middle class liberals’, who are depicted to a woman and man as ‘plummy-voiced radicals’ and ‘left-leaning do-gooders in Britain’s leafier suburbs’.

Indeed, all you posh boys and girls should immediately put down the macchiato coffee O’Neill accuses you of drinking, and ponder instead the British Social Attitudes Survey findings he quotes.

According to this non-partisan source, in 2003 a surprisingly high 40% of benefits recipients agreed that ‘unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work’. By 2011, that figure had risen to 59%, a clear majority. Understanding this point has to be the baseline for any sober leftist assessment.

Simply pointing to the Spirit of ’45, by way of protective incantation against evil in an era when support for the postwar social democratic consensus is crumbling after three decades of ideological assault, is as insufficient as it is commendable.

What we need to grasp is that the welfare changes introduced last week, reprehensible as socialists find them, are evidently popular among voters.

Had Blairism still been the dominant force within the Labour Party, its instinctive reaction would have been to enter into a Dutch auction with the right, as it devised ever more ingenious methods of paring down benefit entitlements ever further. The likes of Caroline Flint or James Purnell would no doubt have drooled at taking on the task.

As it is, opposition work and pensions spokesman Liam Byrne has come up with a timid attempt at triangulation, rewriting a famous Marxist slogan as ‘from each according to his contribution, to each according to his contribution’.

This might seem savvy now, given the feedback from the focus groups. But the half-heartedness is all too apparent, and leaves the political initiative entirely in Tory hands.

The alternative – mounting a positive defence of universal welfare provision, on ethical and pragmatic grounds alike – requires a degree of moral courage that Labour has long found it difficult to muster.

After all, there are many more Daily Mail front pages to come between now and the next election, and not a few will be revisiting the territory covered in the last few days.

But it will not be impossible, especially as the impact of austerity will not spare that tabloid’s readership from its ravages. The success of the petition to make IDS live up to his ‘I could live on £53 a week’ and the grass roots campaign against the bedroom tax demonstrates that the right is not immune to challenge on this terrain.

Unfortunately, Byrne’s tactic of splitting the difference with Dacre, envisaging as it does the reduction of the welfare state to little more than a glorified insurance scheme, concedes defeat from the outside. He should remember that if this ground is lost, it may not be regained for decades.

2 Comments

  1. Matty says:

    ‘unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work’ JSA is just £71per week (for over 25’s). How on earth that discourages work is beyond me. The article gets it right, only one side of the argument gets heard, Labour is far too timid on this.

  2. Jayne Linney says:

    I totally concur with this and indeed wrote by take that looked at the basis of Social Security being exactly that! http://jaynelinney.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/social-security-fair-or-based-on-need/

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