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Does the party of the welfare state talk tough because it doesn’t know where the centre ground is?

Rachel ReevesSometimes I suspect that not a syllable escapes the lips of Rachel Reeves unless it somehow encapsulates the pitch for the latest Channel Four eat the poor documentary while simultaneously disgusting a sizeable chunk of Labour activists. Most recently, her declamation that Labour is not the party of the welfare state and doesn’t represent those out of work – or in work and on benefits, for that matter – has horrified many socialists.

Worse than that, it has horrified many people who fall into those categories and are still considering how to vote on 7 May. Moreover, Ms Reeves has got previous as long as your arm. In her very first interview on her appointment as work and pensions spokeswoman, back in 2013, she promised to be tougher than the Tories on cutting the welfare bill. Vote Labour, get IDS, only that bit nastier.

 Nobody should be under any illusions that they are going to be able to live a life on benefits under a Labour government, she insisted.

 Nobody, Rachel? Not even those bed-ridden as a result of multiple sclerosis, as my mother was when she brought up my brother and I on a widow’s pension, for instance? Or unemployed residents of Hull, where there are more than 50 jobseekers for every vacancy?

Earlier this year, Ms Reeves even wrote to David Cameron to lambast him for his government’s ostensible softness on dole wallahs, couching her missive in terms of a draconian threat to axe Jobseekers’ Allowance after two years.

 The irony is that the substance of her policies, and even their philosophical underpinnings, are entirely consistent with what a social democratic party in opposition could be expected to advance. It should be axiomatic that it is better for both the individuals concerned and the British economy as a whole that, wherever possible, people are working rather than not working. Of course full-time employment should pay a wage sufficient to live on, so that workers don’t have to claim housing benefit and tax credit.

Labour’s jobs guarantee scheme – which would provide work for the long-term unemployed, financed by a tax on bankers’ bonuses and scrapping tax relief on pension contributions for the highest earners – is meat and potatoes stuff to anybody on the left. Ditching the bedroom tax, reducing reliance on food banks and ending the incentivisation of Jobcentre staff to issue sanctions are all commendable – if modest – reforms, and properly Labour aims to boot.

To her credit, Ms Reeves has explicitly advocated all of these things. The she goes and spoils it all for the sake of a two-bob reactionary soundbite that will hit a home run in Dacreville.

Properly packaged alongside our many other good manifesto commitments, these policies could form part of a coherent progressive case for voting Labour. That way, Labour could win back voters defecting to the Greens and the Scottish National Party in search of a centre-left alternative, not to mention the millions who now see insufficient reason to vote at all.

As a one-time teenage chess prodigy, Rachel Reeves is surely accustomed to thinking many moves ahead. In some quarters, she is spoken of as a potential future leader of the Labour Party, and there will be an element of setting out her stall in all this. The obligatory Oxford PPE guarantees that she knows enough political history to be aware of Labour’s self-image precisely as the party of the welfare state, a major motivation for many of those who join.

Labour was a crucial auxiliary supporter of the Lloyd George reforms before world war one, and oversaw its conscious construction after world war two, and no casual disavowal for reasons of spur-of-the-moment expediency changes that. Yes, we are the party of the welfare state. Yes, we should be openly, ostentatiously, and boastfully bloody well proud of that. We are Labour, that’s what we do.

Ms Reeves will also know full well that within established Labour usage, the words ‘working people’ includes those workers who may not have a job at any given time, either through illness or redundancy. That is the sense in which we say we are for the many, not the few.

 So why the repeated ugly turn of phrase, which occurs far too frequently to be attributable to happenstance? My best guess would be that Ms Reeves is premising her strategy on the truism that elections are won in the centre ground. It’s just that I suspect she has wrongly identified where the centre ground is these days.

However much mileage the tabloid press extracts from lurid stories about ‘benefit cheats’, the years since the Lehman Brothers collapse have brought home to almost all of alarm clock Britain the reality that employment is never secure. White collar professionals and managers, especially in the public sector, now know that they could rock up to work on any given day and get their cards, completely out of the blue.

 Sorry, mate. Not your fault etcetera etcetera, sterling work and all that, we’re grateful for all your efforts over the years. Now clear your desk and sod off the premises, the statutory redundo is in the post. Many of us have had that conversation first hand, and those that haven’t all know someone who has. In the same way, we have all seen longtime colleagues rendered unable to work as a result of illness, and are well aware it could happen to any of us.

Alienating those who want to be reassured the welfare state will still there should they need it will cost more votes than can possibly be won by pandering to ingrained lower middle class prejudices about the great unwashed. The warmed-over neo-Blairite rhetoric of Rachel Reeves may well be costing Labour votes at a ratio of two or three to one. For the sake of our prospects of getting Ed M into Number Ten, a period of forbearance might be in order.


  1. Barry Ewart says:

    No, because some are bourgeois politicians who say what they think will be popular with the public rather than as socialists saying what we belive is right and having the courage to take on the rich and powerful.
    As a socialist though I am happy to use the term working people because it is inclusive of all those who have to sell their labour to live and we no longer have the mass industrialised working class of the 1960”s plus we unite skilled and unskilled workers.
    But I also use it inclusively to mean all those who work, are unable to work or are denied the opportunity to work.
    I am on the Left of Labour and would argue the broader Left should vote Labour even if it is with a peg on your nose, but why?
    Because the Tories do believe in the Welfare Stare

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      The idea of the Working Class, like that of Labor’s socialist traditions and antecedents is a complete red herring.

      Reeves, Cameron, Miller, Laws, Balls, Miliband, (yet another millionaire spiv living the life in a £ 2 million + London Mansion,) and co represent only the interests, (personal and financial,) of their own class, (to whom the kind of hard work they so glibly advocate for the rest of us would be complete anathema,) a class which consists of the property owning 20%, (or 30%,) of the population who own 80% of property and command 80% of the income.

      The sooner most people wake up and finally realize that the post Blair; post socialist; “fake,” Labor party have been completely captured by a bunch right wing Tories, no different in practice to Cameron’s bunch of equally odious low life, the sooner we can get an effective political opposition and real alternative that isn’t simply just the Tories under a false flag as it were.

      Unfortunately and frighteningly so, (particularly for those of us coping with unemployment and caring for someone with disability,) for that to happen Labor probably need to lose the next election big time.

      Long term for the UK that might, (although fraught with peril,) yet be best possible result for the UK.

      ELECTOR, n. One who enjoys the sacred privilege of voting for the man of another man’s choice.

      Ambrose Bierce

  2. John.P reid says:

    Didn’t one of the 45′ gov’t say people on welfare is a failure of the state, thT there is t sufficient jobs, and housing, the Thatcher gov’t said it wasn’t the government t job to get unemployment down, do they must gave been more pro welfare than labour

    As for knowing where the centre ground is, the toies shifted the centre ground towards them in 1979′ making labour swing towards the left, even though by 1992 we had gone back to the old centre ground,we were still far away from what the public, considered the. CEnter ground, now was

  3. Robert says:

    Look out for a power struggle within Progress over should we have a Murphy as leader, a Thatcher in Reeves, or Alexander.

    The one thing we will not have is a socialist.

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