It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Edward Samuel Miliband, Labour Leader of the Opposition, won Prime Minister’s Questions this week. That may be overstating the case somewhat – some die-hard Conservative out there will commend David Cameron’s sterling performance in a tribal fashion we’ve learnt to accept – but when I say “universally”, I’ve interpreted it to mean, “where the sample was composed of sane, non-tribal, politically-informed folk”. 12/12/12 is a date that will be remembered as the day when the impossible happened – Labour actually won a debate… on welfare.
Miliband asked the Prime Minister to confirm who would be affected by the tax credit cuts in the welfare element of Chancellor Osborne’s Autumn budget – suggesting that the affected individuals would for the most part be those in work. Cameron combatted with the usual two facts: that the Coalition has taken 2 million people out of tax completely and halved the income tax bill of many other workers, totalling 20 million low-earners who have seen, what superficially, appears to be a substantial reduction in their tax liability. But, though Cameron’s argument is valid, it’s very poor. As has been noted several times now – the impact on working individuals equates to approximately 90p a week. Most loaves of bread cost more than 90p. Milk, well, you can just about buy a 2 pint bottle for that amount. I’m not sure how much working families will celebrate being able to have a little more milk in their coffee. Secondly, however, is the fact that if the government is pledging to stop incentivising “living a life on benefits” but then goes on to mainly reduce benefits to those in work, either the rhetoric or the maths is wrong – either way, it exposes a flaw in the Tory duo’s narrative which Miliband was quite right to demonstrate. Cameron never dealt with the claim that workers were more affected by the welfare cuts than non-workers – from that we may make our own judgement, but if it were untrue, I reckon Cameron wouldn’t have stayed mute.
And, because no episode of the dramas of the House of Commons is complete without an own goal, Cameron stepped up and took one for the team – calling Ed Balls a “bully”, which Miliband jumped on and brandished like a whip, spotting the irony in an ex-Bullingdon Club member lecturing anybody on “bullying”. “Have you wrecked a restaurant recently?” said a grinning Miliband, so proud and smug, he positively glowed. Naturally, the children on the benches behind him roared with glee and took forever to settle down again – behaviour that would never have been tolerated at my school.
As though this wasn’t enough to secure Miliband’s win, Miliband drove the last nail in by reading out something Vince Cable once said, implying (effectively) that Conservative policy has been bought by the donors and those financing the party. Yes, it’s rich for Labour (the party bought by the unions) to ever criticise the funding and impact of donors on policy – but Cameron meekly pointed this out before running back to his chair. Game, set and match – Miliband has it in the bag.
Cameron was forced, repeatedly, to commend his own policy by virtue of it being superior to Labour policy. Whether it came to the green investment bank (“we’ve done more in our two years than Labour did in their 13!”) or the extra £212bn that will need to be borrowed, significantly more than estimated, Cameron was left with his back against the wall, arguing that policy under the Conservatives is better than an alternative. This is the typical Tory story – make you feel like you only have a choice of two parties, then when they fail, they can still “win” by saying they’re better than the other lot. Don’t be fooled. Engage in positive voting – vote for what you want, not against what you don’t want, and challenge this entire concept right to its very core. Don’t support the Conservatives because they’re not Labour, support the Conservatives because you agree with Conservative policy – or don’t support them at all. If all British democracy achieves is something that isn’t the absolute worst-case scenario, we’ve achieved absolutely nothing. Cameron’s Conservatives set themselves a list of goals – one of which was the elimination of the deficit, and by their own metrics, they’ve been unsuccessful. This is not a metric other people have imposed on them, they used a quantitative, measurable goal, and we know now they have failed. Labour would never have made deficit elimination a goal (a failure in itself) but that does not commend the Tory position today.
One smaller point to note: whilst Dennis Skinner is an appalling man who needs to be removed from his seat as soon as a by-election can be organised, he was right to point out that the Data Communications Act must be seen as an infringement on the individual’s liberty – because it is. Cameron says that details of when correspondence was sent, not the content, will be recorded – but it’s a slippery slope, and I quite like the idea that details of my emails should be kept to myself. Many would agree. There are many things that need considering when it comes to National Defence, but if the PM is committed to our defence, perhaps he should stop sticking his nose in foreign affairs that do not concern him, and where our concern is unwanted.
The crux of my argument in these pieces remains unchanged, the Conservative Party need to commit to austerity in a greater fashion than they currently are (and in a more radical manner) and need to rediscover their small-government ideals. But for the first time, I will give this win to the Labour team – for achieving the unthinkable, and showing that the welfare argument is not solidly in Conservative territory.