I can't help but have mixed feelings about Ed Miliband's big welfare speech, as it's been trailed all week. The pragmatist in me thinks it was about as good as it was ever likely to be. It makes some concessions to the way the Tories have attempted to depict everyone on benefits, regardless of what they're claiming, as a scrounger, but for the most part it takes the argument back to them. This is what we would do to bring the social security (as Miliband repeatedly referred to) bill down, even if it takes time: by reducing unemployment through a job guarantee, building houses, allowing councils to negotiate with landlords on the behalf of tenants, encouraging employers to increase wages through giving them tax breaks via the money saved on tax credits. What would the Tories do, other than keep eulogising about work while condemning those who are desperate for it?
Obviously designed as an attempt to win back the support of those who think they are the only ones deserving of benefits while everyone else is gaming the system while also fighting back against the myths the Tories and the right-wing press have propagated, it does seem to have been mostly successful. If we were to judge by the Tory response, which has been to say the entire thing was vacuous or the same old nonsense from a party that has opposed every welfare cut the coalition has imposed (which isn't true, but never mind), then it seems to have hit the target. Rather than engage, all they've responded with is ad hominems. It also seems to have in the main gone down well with both right and left within the party itself, which considering the worry there was that Miliband was going to essentially adopt the coalition's policies is a reasonable achievement.
My idealist side, however, feels this was exactly what we'd feared. It's one thing to suggest that it appears that some people get something for nothing out of the system while others get nothing for something, it's then quite another to accept that there are a "minority who should be working and don't want to", and then repeat that sentiment again and again. It would be to deny reality to say there isn't anyone out there on benefits who is able to work but doesn't, but the numbers we're talking about are incredibly slight, so tightened has the system become.
You also have to worry that the party has walked straight into George Osborne's trap by accepting a cap on overall spending. Miliband said that it would be structural, rather than cyclical, yet this is hardly set in stone. When Osborne outlines what his cap will be and the benefits it will cover, the demand will be for Labour to accept that as well. After all, the party has effectively said they'll abide by the overall amount of spending come 2015/16, just not the specific items. Why should it be any different on this?
Nor was he convincing when it came to ensuring that the most vulnerable are properly protected. There was no apology or recognition of the damage caused by the work capability assessment, rather Miliband said he'd wished the last government had reformed incapacity benefit sooner. Yes, there was recognition that the system still isn't working despite changes under the coalition, and that there needs to further changes so that the test recognises what you can do rather than just what you can't, but we've heard all this before. The sad reality is likely to be that this "tailored help", should it even arrive, will be the same as those on the work programme are receiving, where the stick comes first and the carrot second. Much the same can be expected for those called into the Jobcentre once their child reaches the age of 3.
There's also little to recommend the section on low wages. Rather than action, all Miliband promises is more persuasion. While it's understandable that Labour doesn't want to promise a large increase in the minimum wage towards a living one when the effect could potentially be devastating on some small businesses, that doesn't excuse the failure to act to stop large employers from paying wages that still leave workers in poverty. Condemning zero hour contracts and brutish work places is meaningless if Labour is unwilling to do something about them. As welcome as the message is that work isn't always an end in itself, Miliband said nothing that so much as suggests the party knows how to stop business from reling on the state to top up poor pay.
Then again, why should we have expected anything else? Rather than challenging public perceptions or media narratives, the modern politician accepts them as gospel and adapts their message accordingly. It was Labour that began this race to the bottom, and now it's desperately trying to catch up. In those terms, the speech worked. If it does convince a few that Labour are worth trusting again, great. Clearly, we should worry about what it means for the welfare state as we know it another day.
Labels: benefit system, Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, David Cameron, economics, Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, Labour, politics, Tories, welfare reform