“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.