Welfare is becoming political kryptonite for Labour. The public want it cut, but powerful forces in the Labour movement are determined to protect their sacred cow.
If Labour stand for anything, it is being the party of tax and spend, or rather, borrow and spend. Labour’s very genesis was the idea that the power of centralised government can and should be used to redistribute from those with the broadest shoulders to those with the greatest need, or so the saying goes. But the British public’s appetite for punishingly high taxes on a par with continental Europe is negligible, so borrowing became the substitute.
But in an age of austerity, that’s not an option. It all comes down the question of what Labour is for when there’s no money?
Labour have had to evolve from being a party of nationalised industries and socialist levels of taxation, to becoming the party of the Public Sector on the one hand, and entitlement on the other. It is the Public Sector, after all, which serves as the last crumbling bastion of trade union power. As ship building, mining and manufacturing declined, the Public Sector moved from being the poor relation of the trade union movement to its biggest single constituent. The result has been for the Public Sector dominated trade union movement and the Labour Party to form a symbiotic relationship (or death embrace depending on your view point). Each increasingly depends on the other for its very survival; Labour need the financial and electoral support of Public Sector unions, who in turn need Labour governments to keep their member numbers up, and the dues rolling in.
A client state has emerged, with swathes of the country dependent on the State for employment. And with the exception of Northern Ireland, these are all Labour safe seats. It can be no coincidence, for example, that four out of Labour’s five safest seats are in Liverpool, where 39 percent of the workforce is involved in the State Sector.
The problem for Labour, however, is in the second facet of its new identity. Becoming the party of welfare may satisfy progressives and keep the DWP pen pushers busy, but it’s increasingly unpopular. Far from austerity resulting in a war time spirit of solidarity and community as the Owen Jones’s of this world hoped for, the last few years have seen a distinct hardening of public attitudes towards those receiving benefits.
Significantly, even among Labour voters, the shift in mindset has changed. As The Telegraph reported in May, back in 1987, only 16 per cent of Labour supporters said that people would “learn to stand on their own feet” if benefits were less generous. But by 2011 this had risen to 46 per cent. The findings from the JRF study, conducted by NatCen Social Research may not have mattered five years ago, but with UKIP now a palatable alternative for the socially conservative working class Labour used to call its own, pressure is growing on Ed Miliband to take action or risk seeing Labour simply become the Party of Benefits.
As Dan Hodges wrote in his blog on Tuesday “Ed’s terrified of being attacked on welfare,” said one MP. “At the last PLP meeting he did a presentation of polling on the key battleground issues. There was no polling on welfare. Nothing. Ed just doesn’t want it seen as a battleground issue.”
Single digit leads in the polls, a string of less that convincing by election performances, and anaemic Local Election results must surely be forcing the Labour leadership to ask themselves why they are failing to resonate with the wider public. The problem, fear some, is that they know the why but don’t have answer. Labour are still not trusted with the economy, or more specifically. They are still perceived as a being the political equivalent of a giddy 14 year old who’s found their parents credit card.
The uncomfortable truth for Labour is that they have lost the debate on austerity, and have lost the battle to frame the debate on welfare. If George Osborne has achieved nothing else, he has established the narrative. He has created a binary choice of recovery or debt, savings now or bankruptcy tomorrow, Coalition responsibility or Labour recklessness, and yes, worker or skiver. Labour are going to have to chose, and chose soon, between trying to regain economic credibility with an electorate who’ve bought into the Coalition line, or appeasing those addicted to State largesse.