Why Labour cannot rely on Anti-Tory votes alone

“Compassionate Conservatism is dead. Contemptuous Conservatism has taken its place,” declared Liam Byrne MP, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and, until recently, coordinator of Labour’s policy review (a small-scale reshuffle by Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, resulted in Byrne being taken off this brief and replaced with Jon Cruddas).

Byrne’s statement came in the midst of his second Beveridge lecture, entitled ‘Making Rights a Reality for Disabled People’, hosted by the independent think tank Demos. Byrne used the speech as an opportunity to provide a lesson in history and philosophy – taking his audience on a journey through post-Second World War Britain and the creation of the welfare state – “one of the greatest achievements of British civilisation.”

He set out Labour’s commitment to universal welfare provision and full employment. Full employment, he suggested, would allow for a more generous welfare state with universal benefits. Key to this achieving this aim will be supporting more disabled people into employment. Ultimately, this ties into a strategy that centres on people’s ‘capabilities’ – an approach Byrne adopted from the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen. Rather than focus on people’s limitations, a capabilities approach looks at what people need to live the types of lives they value.

Byrne did not waste the chance to slam the Government either. Had a Labour Minister made the same comments as Work and Pensions Secretary and former Conservative Party Leader, Iain Duncan Smith – who recently claimed that disabled employees in Remploy factories were “not doing any work at all…just making cups of coffee” – they would have been sacked, Byrne asserted. The Government “have quite simply crossed the threshold of decency.”

No doubt many would agree with such an assessment of a Government that is cutting benefits for disabled children and destabilising the future of emergency payments for women who have escaped domestic violence. As Claudia Wood, Deputy Director of Demos, rightly points out: quoting philosophers and economists like Sen and Martha Nussbaum is all well and good, but what people really want to know is what would Labour do differently? When asked what policies in the Welfare Reform Act, which became law in March 2012 and sets out many highly controversial policies like the abolition of Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Labour would reverse, Byrne stopped short of giving such details – at least until the next election, he responded.

In the meantime, he and others will be “taking evidence around the country from people with disabilities, from carers, from campaigners, from public service and business leaders about how we renew the universal in the universal welfare state by turning rights into reality.” In other words: a listening exercise (hopefully, one more effective than that carried out Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, seeking – and failing – to convince the country of the merits of the Government’s NHS upheaval).

Disability activists and campaigners following the speech on Twitter celebrated Byrne’s announcement of a co-produced policy review. Editor of the popular Liberal Conspiracy, Sunny Hundal, asked: ‘Has Liam Byrne discovered his conscience over disability benefits?” One of the authors of the excellent Spartacus Report – which just a few months ago spread across the Twitter-sphere like wildfire after exposing the Government’s staggering dismissal of highly critical responses to a public consultation on a key disability benefit – hailed it as “a huge significant shift”.

The prospect of Labour carrying out a co-produced policy review, with disabled people’s voices at the centre of it, is indeed a most welcome development and the praise outlined above is rightly placed. However, it should be taken with a pinch, if not several handfuls, of salt for a few reasons. First, because there is already a wealth of information – including the Spartacus Report and Demos’s own series, Destination Unknown – out there detailing the real life impact of the cuts on disabled people and their families. Second, because Labour is already more than a year and half into the policy review and seem to have surprisingly little to offer. In some areas, Ed Miliband’s famous “blank piece of paper” is, eighteen months later, still blank.

Third, and most worryingly, is the thought that Labour believes they don’t actually need policy details. Not yet, anyway. As the recent council elections showed, people are turning to Ed Miliband’s party in their droves. At the time of writing, the polling company YouGov put the Opposition 11 points ahead of the Conservatives; almost two thirds of people disapprove of the Government’s record to date; 63% think David Cameron is doing badly as Prime Minister. With over a third of people worried that they could lose their job in the next year, it would seem that the Government’s own programme of austerity is turning people against them, and towards Labour.

Before Ed Miliband’s election as party leader, a friend and I argued over the two contenders’ credentials as leader of the opposition. At the time, I supported Ed and he David. His main concern was this: that should Ed be elected, he would bury himself in policy reviews and similar soul-searching exercises and, as a consequence, could not become the credible and vocal opponent of the Government’s ideologically-driven cuts that the people needed. The strategy would be to rely on anti-Government – and not actively pro-Labour – sentiments driving people into the Opposition’s arms. Eighteen months later and Labour might be enjoying a big boost in the polls, but more than half the public think that Ed Miliband is doing a bad job; a similar figure say that Labour cannot be trusted to run the economy.

Welfare is a particularly tricky area for Labour; reform of the benefits system is popular with the voters and Labour needs to show where they would get the money to fund alternatives they come up with. But the Government has also had much to do with turning public opinion against the welfare system; a well-planned programme of selective media briefings have fuelled the poisonous ‘scrounger’ and ‘workshy’ rhetoric that is now so widespread in many popular newspapers. A key task for Labour will be to shift this narrative and challenge media-fuelled assumptions that disability benefits are rife with fraud (the Government’s own statistics show that DLA has a fraud rate of 0.5%).

Relying on anti-cuts/Conservative/Government opposition makes sense, strategically. Why go out to voters if you can get them to come to you? But without an answer to the question ‘What would Labour do?’, and soon, Byrne et al will fail to provide an articulate and meaningful challenge as the Government sets about dismembering the very welfare state Beveridge created all those years ago.

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About eugenetgrant

I work as a Public Policy Advisor on Financial Inclusion, Poverty and Welfare, for a disability charity. Prior to that, I worked at the independent think tank Demos. I have written for a variety of online and in print publications, including the Social Policy Association, Progress Online, Disability Now, Labour Uncut, Anthonypainter.co.uk and Touchstone. I am available for articles and comment pieces on disability issues, British politics and current affairs. My email is eugenetgrant at googlemail dot com. Please feel free to get in touch. View all posts by eugenetgrant

6 responses to “Why Labour cannot rely on Anti-Tory votes alone

  • Sue Marsh

    Look, I’m sorry, I’m in a grumpy mood, so feel free to ignore me, but NO opposition party comes out with policies three yrs before an election. It wld be political suicide and absolutely pointless.
    Successful lobbies push them to a “position” which is what disability campaigners have done. Expecting policies from Labour now is like expecting a baby with no pregnancy.
    Beveridge 2 might as well have read : “OK, you guys are making things so tricky for us, we’ll offer you an olive branch in return for an easier ride. Please. And so the die is cast. An uneasy alliance. We are assured Labour will “see us right” in return for laying off a bit. If either side breaks their part of the bargain, they have something the other wants.
    Last year, we had nothing they wanted. Simple as that.

  • Claudia @Demos

    I agree with Sue – some might say Labour pulled a master stroke by having Byrne set out a generic approach (full employment, universal benefits) which was clearly *different* to the current government, whilst promising to co-produce the detail within this framework.

    BUT – my only caveat is that whilst this (in other policy areas) is the textbook approach to take for an opposition party mid-term, when it comes to welfare reform I think Labour could have afforded some out with some detail. The reason being is that the Welfare Reform Act really has some howlers in it in terms of poorly thought out policies, which Labour should have been confident enough to be able to say they would seek to reverse or rethink.

    They did in fact do this a little already – for example putting forward a regionally varied welfare cap as an alternative to the Government’s one size fits all version. I think Labour could have – just as a starter for ten – added to this with the possibility of improving the WCA and extending or at least reviewing the time limitation of contributory ESA. These are areas screaming out for review and I’m sure Labour could have nailed their colours to the mast on these without feeling they had over-committed themselves too far in advance of the election.

    Welfare reform is such a multi-policy (multi-cut) crowded space, with so many unworkable and deeply unfair clangers, that (unlike many other policy areas), I think Labour does have the luxury to pick on some areas in isolation and float ideas designed to demonstrate a more sensitive and sensible approach, without necessarily coming up with an entire and coherent reform strategy.

  • Sue Marsh

    Actually that’s true. I don’t think they cld have opposed the time limit – silly soda for their knickers in such a twist over it, for now all they can do is stay quiet or be seen to support “a lifetime festering on benefits” ( see why that line is so clever? )
    But they cld hammer the Gov repeatedly on youth principle – if anyone knew what it really meant. That’s just craven AND had a lot of Tory opposition too. Fees for the CSA, making pensioners move out of council homes they’ve had all their life, halving tax credits for disabled kids – all complete win wins for Lab & excellent ways of embedding the sheer Tory bastardness in the public conscience.
    I do get fed up of giving this advice for free though don’t you guys? I appear to be missing my 65k salary, limo and expenses account 😉

  • eugenetgrant

    Thank you both very much for posting. I think Claudia’s caveat is right; there are some incredibly callous, regressive reforms in the Welfare Reform Act that Labour could easily have jumped upon. I’m not sure C-ESA youth provision is one of them; I don’t think the public understands it very well. But, cuts to disabled child benefits and Crisis Loans for women who have escaped domestic violence could easily be framed in a way that would resonate with public emotions – even in spite of wider shifts against the welfare state.

    While I accept there is a need to take their time to some extent, and that Miliband always intended to come out with a policy review, I think there is enough out there to provide Labour with a starter for 10. The #Spartacus Report and Scope’s Future of PIP paper provide real insights into how DLA reform might be done differently; there is a lot already on the WCA.

    There is a real risk that Labour, by talking about universalism, but without saying outright whether it would restore the Child Benefit that was cut for higher earners, arguably the last universal benefit we have in this country (bar DLA), is seen as disengenous.

    I think there is a real reluctance within the Opposition to talk about certain reforms – and particularly the WCA – because they began on Labour’s watch.

    Finally, Claudia, you’re right to mention the regional variation of the welfare cap as an example. BUT, this came late in the debate. Instead, what we saw – on Newsnight and other programmes – was Byrne being taken apart by journalists like Paxman because of ‘supporting the cap in principle, but opposing it in practice’. Such muddled messaging is unhelpful and too weak to be used to challenge such devastating welfare reforms. I would say that out of all the reforms Labour chose to spoke out on, they made a huge mistake focussing on the benefit cap – something so widely supported and with DLA/ESASG excluded from – in the way that they did. Cuts to the SDP, disabled child additions, C-ESA, social fund would all have been better choices.

  • eugenetgrant

    Finally, finally, it’s not an area I know enough about, but I also think one of the key reasons behind Labour’s lack of policy detail is that they know they won’t be able to opt-out of many of the private sector contracts – with firms like ATOS, G4S, Capita, etc. – that the current Government will sign. There is no doubt that these contracts for disability benefits assessments will have HUGE breakage clauses that Labour won’t be able to afford, or want to.

  • Ed M disliked Byrne’s hard line on welfare | Liberal Conspiracy

    […] Eugene Grant has some suggestions for Liam Byrne on welfare reform. […]

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