The Conservatives are not serious about cutting the social security bill


8:00 am - April 8th 2013

by Sunny Hundal    


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The Labour Party is rarely confident in talking about social security or immigration. This is mostly because the Conservatives set the agenda and Labour try a confused, nuanced position in response.

But the real reason they lose before they even go into battle is because their fear is palpable. They’re instantly on the defensive. Journalists can see it and voters can see it. Labour are responding to the other side’s points and therefore explaining themselves. In politics, if you’re explaining, you’re losing.

You’re also losing if you’re complaining (on both immigration or welfare) that voters don’t know the facts.

Furthermore, if you’re trying to neutralise Tory complaints against you, as Tom Harris, Liam Byrne and Simon Danczuk are trying to do – you’re also losing. It reinforces Tory lies, looks insincere and doesn’t convince the electorate. It never worked during New Labour years either.

So what can Labour do?

Sonia Sodha (a former advisor to Ed M) says Labour should 1) change the debate to in-work benefits by championing and highlighting individual stories 2) propose useful policies such as committing to raise the minimum wage.

Both are great ideas but I would go further.

I was talking to someone last night and made a simple point: Conservatives were not serious about cutting the welfare bill. This caught him off-guard because I was expected to play defensive than offensive. But it’s true for two reasons.

Firstly, the best way to cut the welfare bill is to grow the economy and get people into well-paid jobs. The Tories have utterly failed to grow the economy, and their budgets have consistently been rated by the OBR and IFS as being neutral on growth. Plus, many of the jobs people have gotten since 2010 have been low-paid / self-employed / Workfare ‘jobs’. That just grows the inow-rk-benefits bill. The reality behind Osborne’s jobs creation claims isn’t so rosy either. They have no serious ideas about growing the economy and this should be hammered repeatedly.

Secondly, over half of the welfare bill is spent on pensions. If they were serious about cutting the welfare bill they’d start by means-testing pensions and cutting it for rich pensioners. If they were serious they’d cut the Winter Fuel Allowance and Freedom passes for rich pensioners. That would cut the welfare bill much more significantly.

The government is instead focusing on a very small proportion of social security spending and hoping the focus remains there. They want the focus on job-seekers and disabled people knowing that the rest will find it easy to demonise that small vulnerable minority too.

You can smell Labour’s confusion and fear a mile off. For example, Simon Danczuk dismisses the Left and Owen Jones for focusing on jobs, and then explains how he wants to… er, create jobs. They know they can’t win this arms race on Tory terms, and yet some ridiculous individuals are urging them into battle anyway.

You don’t win by playing defensive – you win by going on the offensive. And Labour can only do that by hammering that Tories aren’t serious about cutting the welfare budget, and then explain why. If they force the debate on to jobs and rich pensioners, it will be the Tory turn to panic.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Media ,Our democracy

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Reader comments


And Labour must offer support to sick & disabled people http://jaynelinney.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/social-security-fair-or-based-on-need/

2. Andrew Staden

The first myth that should be busted is that the welfare bill is out of control. We spend a smaller percentage on welfare than all comparable European countries, including Germany, France and The Netherlands. I’ve never heard any Labour representative point this out – they just roll over and let the Tories get away with it. Grow a backbone! http://fullfact.org/factchecks/is_the_uks_welfare_system_the_most_generous_in_europe-27368

“If they were serious about cutting the welfare bill they’d start by means-testing pensions and cutting it for rich pensioners. If they were serious they’d cut the Winter Fuel Allowance and Freedom passes for rich pensioners. That would cut the welfare bill much more significantly.”

The problem is that means testing the bus pass and winter fuel allowance saves very little money. Means testing the state pension would save a lot of money, but would also be absolute political suicide.

The problem is that support for pensioners is the part of welfare spending which has greatest popular support. The Tories would be delighted if our dividing line was ‘we want to cut benefits for pensioners’.

4. Barry, Ipswich

At last, there’s something here I can agree with <>
It would have been useful to add that “They [the labour party] have no serious ideas about growing the economy too.

In point of fact it would be useful for all political parties to openly admit this and with some candour too, so that whomever is the party in power, they can quickly manage down all our living standards, that is instead of just waiting for the inevitable forced dramatic callapse in living standards as has happened in Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Greece, and Ireland.

Taking the bus pass and winter fuel allowance away from wealthy pensioners (i.e. those that have contributed to NI and pension funds throughout their working lives) will just piss them off, hence they’ll be even more vocal than normal, where, even though they are wealthy, they still complain about people who’ve never contributed to NI yet who get pensions and benefits which outstrip theirs. The tories are on sound ground here, as they recognise this.

A good post, and a brave one in the current climate.
Let’s hope the Labour leadership read it.

The issue is not welfare. Nothing needs to be done to further cut welfare, in fact any government serious about equipping people for work and preparing the ground for growth would be increasing benefits in line with inflation, spending more for real training/education and spending less on efforts to cut benefits to those who are entitled to them. The focus needs to be on growth any accommodation with the Tories to allow even a sliver of doubt that somehow against all evidence the welfare system has had any input to the current crisis is playing into Tory lies whether it’s nonsense about shirkers or rich pensioners. Welfare is not now and has never been a cause of or contributed to the nation’s economic woes. Attacks on welfare however are, whether the cuts, the sanctions or the bedroom tax push the marginalised into free fall, drain money from localities and punish decent people for the failings of successive governments, and the out of control free booting free marketers.

The day to day point scoring does nothing either. Let’s go back to basics. Anyone who thinks Ed Miliband has got what it takes is astral projecting. A day not spent seeking his removal is another day of distraction from the real issue at hand.

“If they were serious about cutting the welfare bill they’d start by means-testing pensions and cutting it for rich pensioners. If they were serious they’d cut the Winter Fuel Allowance and Freedom passes for rich pensioners.”

Good grief. If Labour were to go down this road, they really would be doing the Tories’ work for them: transforming the welfare state from a comprehensive, universal system of services and benefits available to rich and poor alike, to a safety net for the poor.

History teaches us that in the long run, services and benefits that are available universally, to rich and poor alike, thrive in comparison to services and benefits that are targeted at those on lower incomes. Look at the areas of spending that are being protected from cuts even now: education, healthcare and pensions – the key universal services and benefits. Then look at areas of spending in which the principle of universality was undermined and a ‘means testing’ approach was adopted: the more social housing has been reserved for the poor, the less has been spent on it. The removal of Child Benefit from higher earners has been swiftly followed by a freeze in its value and by calls for it to be restricted to the first two children lest it should induce the poor to breed excessively. How would pensions and related benefits be perceived, and how well would they be funded, in ten or fifty years’ time if we similarly removed them from higher earners?

Of course it is no easy thing to defend universal services and benefits when money is tight, but we have to try. There are still options – e.g. raising taxes to claw back the value of these things from higher earners, making pensioner benefits taxable.


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