John Harris

Journalist & Author

A moment of truth for Ed Miliband’s Labour party | John Harris

If every Labour politician cannot oppose Osborne’s strivers and skivers plan in its toxic entirety, what exactly are they here for?

The welfare uprating bill will apparently materialise early in the new year – a poisonous bit of legislation, conceived for the most abject of reasons. To recap: as a desperate Conservative party scrabbles around for anything approaching a sense of purpose, David Cameron and George Osborne are sounding ever more shrill about the supposed divide between “workers” and “shirkers”, or “strivers” and “skivers”; and this latest proposal is aimed at alchemising popularity from prejudice by capping most working-age benefits – including tax credits – at 1% a year until 2015, severing the link between social security (can we use that term, rather than that ideologically loaded US import “welfare”?) and living standards.

What this means in terms of modern Conservative ideology is clear. It may be clever politics to try to preserve what is left of your faux progressive credentials by picking a fight about gay marriage, but the nobility of that cause shouldn’t distract from what a pup Britain has been sold. The pre-power Cameron, waving around a copy of The Spirit Level and affecting to fret about social justice, was a creature both fantastical and mendacious: the tradition of Macmillanite Toryism he was once said to be resurrecting is now surely stone dead.

It may also say something about modern debate that the most teeth-grinding aspect of Osborne’s move barely attracted comment – but the spectacle of an alumnus of St Paul’s School worth an estimated £4m kicking the poor in order to preserve his political skin is irksome, to say the least.

How the Labour party will respond to Osborne’s plan is obscured by differences in emphasis, and the low chatter of internal argument. But this is probably its most critical moment since Ed Miliband became leader: a point when its positioning will go way beyond the issue at hand and shine a light on the party’s collective soul. It’s one of those “What are you in politics for?” moments, a member of the shadow cabinet told me yesterday. It certainly is: this is a proposal, after all, with all the ideological oomph and toxicity of the poll tax, if not more.

Over the weekend Miliband was on manoeuvres, claiming in the Sunday Mirror that the welfare uprating plan represented the government being “exposed for who they are” and “playing the worst sort of political games”. He cited what Osborne’s wheeze would do to people receiving in-work benefits, as well as unemployed people “doing the right thing, trying to find work”.

Ed Balls made similar noises in Sunday’s Sun, and voiced pointed opposition in the Commons on Monday – though his focus was almost exclusively on people in work, which threatens to leave arguably the bill’s most iniquitous elements outside the debate. Miliband’s position seems that bit clearer: his people want to draw attention to the fact that real-terms benefit cuts will affect thousands in work; but also make a point of refusing to be drawn into Osborne’s game of distinguishing between the working poor and those who are supposedly feckless and unemployed out of choice.

In response to those welcome signals from the Labour leadership, and perhaps mindful of the fact that the opening Labour salvo against Miliband’s position was best fired by a figure of the utmost integrity, the fallen former cabinet minister Jacqui Smith wrote a piece for the website of the ginger group Progress. (It’s still the done thing to describe it as “Blairite”, so I will.) In its reporting of internal Labour tussles over the issue, last Sunday’s Observer made reference to “a caucus of new Labour figures” who thought their leader’s stance politically suicidal: “Frankly,” said Smith, “you can count me into this ‘caucus’.” Any coherent sense of what she was arguing for was rather lacking, but she reckons the moment requires “a more sophisticated approach to the trap set by Osborne than simply to jump into it, even if this is accompanied by cheering from church and voluntary sector groups.” Vicars and charities, eh – who needs them?

These views extend to some of the shadow cabinet. One senior Labour figure recently told me that he’d heard party high-ups claiming that they have to come down “even harder on people on benefits than bankers”, because Labour supporters see the former every day, whereas the latter live in another world entirely. If it followed this view of things, Labour would at best perhaps take some hair-splitting position on the Osborne plan, opposing a cap on working tax credits and the like, but gritting its teeth and letting yet more blows rain down on that part of the population routinely imagined – even when long-term unemployment affects close to a million people – to be avoiding work and living high on the hog.

One Labour polemicist in the blogosphere reckons Miliband is taking a moral stance whose political consequences could be “of no benefit to the weakest and most vulnerable at all”; another argues that “Ed Miliband’s conviction is leading him and his party to disaster”, and that Labour will “lose the welfare war”. In this reading of things, it seems, the party must allow the trampling of the poor in order to win power and save them. Not for the first time Labour voices are embracing the kind of wisdom embodied in that infamous quote from the Vietnam war: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Yes, Labour’s thinking on benefits is in dire need of work: it needs to develop arguments about universalism, the much-hyped but little-developed idea of a more contributory benefits system, and how to push the argument into areas so far untouched: between-jobs training, for example. As proved by the tepid response to Osborne’s plans of its work and pension spokesman, Liam Byrne, the shadow cabinet is going to have to do better than maligning some of Osborne’s plans as a “striver’s tax” and thus leaving the “skiver” aspect largely unchallenged (though it slightly pains me to use the term, a “one nation Labour” imperative if ever there was one). It’s also clear that the leadership laid a trap for itself by backing the government’s public sector pay freeze.

The facts are as cold and unarguable as the winter weather: if Osborne gets his way, the income of Britain’s poorest people will – for the first time in more than 80 years – fall as a matter of government policy, and we’ll take yet another giant step towards a country of ever-multiplying food banks, rampant poverty, and people routinely going hungry. The question has to be asked again and again: if each and every Labour politician does not oppose this in its entirety, what exactly are they here for?

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