Any government policy with a chance of success should generally be a judicious mixture of carrot and stick, and it’s difficult not to conclude that the present Government is more fond of the latter than the former.
So, what of the Opposition? With his proposal to deny the Jobseeker’s Allowance to young, unskilled adults, it seems, unfortunately, that Ed Miliband has chosen to align himself with the stick people.
Just as Tony Blair decided 20 years ago that the way to get Labour back into power was the Tory-lite option, Mr Miliband is pursuing a right turn ahead of a general election. His big idea – and one that doesn’t necessitate everyone in Britain getting their own owl, as a party Twitter account erroneously tweeted yesterday – involves those between 18 and 21 only receiving the Jobseeker's Allowance if they already have the skills to get a job, while the unskilled will be punished with a smaller Youth Allowance.
The Labour leader would presumably deny that the plan is remotely right-wing, but it sounds like the kind of measure Margaret Thatcher would have clasped to her bosom.
It also looks as if Miliband has taken the crazy decision to risk alienating first-time voters. If a recent Radio 4 programme is to be believed, young adults are lurching rightwards of their own accord anyway, with less of a feeling for the welfare state and more emphasis on self-reliance. Perhaps they’re feeling that the state has failed them – and Miliband’s stand on the Jobseeker's Allowance will hardly reassure them in that regard.
The Labour leader has, apparently, taken to heart an argument put forward by the LSE sociology professor Richard Sennett that compassion isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (sorry, Jesus, you just haven’t moved with the times, and though we still purport to be a Christian country, we need a new religion, one that doesn’t involve woolly liberal ideas like caring for one’s fellow man).
In the Hugo Young Lecture Miliband delivered earlier this year he spoke of the impact on him of Sennett’s book, Respect: The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality. Sennett writes: “Charity itself has the power to wound; pity can beget contempt, compassion can be intimately linked to inequality” – which, though Sennett is the product of a Chicago housing project, sounds suspiciously like an argument to bring back the workhouse.
In pictures: Ed Miliband trying to look normal
In pictures: Ed Miliband trying to look normal
1/17 The beggar
Ed Miliband casually gives money to a homeless woman in Manchester, surrounded by press photographers.
2/17 The Bacon Sandwich
Ed Miliband buys a bacon sandwich from cafe owner Antonios Foufas at New Covent Garden Market in London as he kicks off a day of campaigning on the eve of the local and European elections
3/17 The Bacon Sandwich
Ed Miliband chats with a cafe owner Antonios Foufas at New Covent Garden Market in London
4/17 The Bacon Sandwich
Ed Miliband embarked on a whirlwind campaign tour of England - but struggled at the first hurdle (a bacon sandwich). Aides intervened after just a few less-than-elegant bites
5/17 Flower Shopping
Ed Miliband talks with a couple of traders at New Covent Garden Market in London
6/17 Flower Shopping
Ed Miliband purchases some red roses for his wife at New Covent Garden Market in London
7/17 Talking Business
Ed Miliband talks with a trader at New Covent Garden Market in London
8/17 Good Morning Britain
Miliband on ITV's Good Morning Britain show on 20 May 2014, a day of gaffes in which he was also caught out by BBC Wiltshire for not knowing who the local Labour leader was
9/17 '£70 Weekly Shop'
Ed was accused of being 'out of touch with reality' after he seemed not to know what he - or the average British family - spends on a weekly food shop
10/17 Drop in Polls
Ed Miliband paid a visit to Leighton Hospital in Crewe to speak with the staff about the NHS, but faced difficult questions about polls showing his personal ratings falling well behind those David Cameron and George Osborne
11/17 On the Sofa with Farage
Ed Miliband appeared on the Andrew Marr Show to debate with Nigel Farage - but has all but conceded defeat in the Newark by-election, allowing Ukip a free run at the Tories
12/17 Wollies in Wellies
Miliband was among a number of politicians to come under fire for 'touring' the floods in the South and South West earlier this year
13/17 Wollies in Wellies
The Labour leader admitted it was 'a difficult decision for politicians whether to visit areas like this'
14/17 Missed Opportunity
Miliband's performance at the Labour conference last year failed to make much of an impression on voters, polls suggested
15/17 Sharing the Moment
Miliband, Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Angus Robinson enjoy their moment with Andy Murray, after the tennis player's Wimbledon win
16/17 Casual Husband
Miliband and his wife Justine are pictured in their hotel room in Brighton as he prepares to give his keynote speech to the annual Labour Party Conference
17/17 The Milibands
Just your average family of four?
Miliband is addressing the concerns of some voters that while millions of us pay into the welfare system more than we get out of it, some appear to be getting something for nothing. A YouGov poll carried out for the centre-left think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research found that 78 per cent of respondents believe the welfare system isn’t rewarding those whose payments keep it afloat. Miliband said reform is needed to bring down what he calls “a wall of scepticism” that politicians can be trusted to make things fairer.
Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary was called into action to deny that the Jobseekers cuts proposal is punitive, but how else will look to the average out-of-work young adult?
She stressed that only those without level 3 qualifications – the equivalent of an A-level – will be affected, but that means 70 per cent of 18-21-year-olds currently claiming the JSA. And the initial saving? A measly £65m, by my admittedly rough calculation, about 18 hours of the UK’s defence budget.
With his own popularity on the slide, Miliband needs soft targets. He is making the noises that he thinks will endear him and his party to the country. The apparently feckless, idle youth of today – the ones who’d barely reached spotty adolescence when the masters of the universe and the governments that indulged them messed up the world economy – make the perfect whipping boys and girls.
The fact is, tinkering with the welfare system is largely irrelevant to the problems we’re facing as a nation. What Ed Miliband needs is a clear and inspiring vision of how society should be, and a plan of how he’s going to bring that about. Without either of those things he’ll never make it to No 10.
Would you chip in for One Direction’s football team?
A wise man once said that the best way to make a small fortune is to start off with a large fortune and then buy a football club.
According to the latest Rich List, One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson is worth around £14m, which these days is only a small fortune – and that’s probably why, having bought his beloved Doncaster Rovers FC with the club’s former chairman John Ryan, he’s now asking the club’s long-suffering supporters to help him out.
The pair have set up a crowdsourcing appeal to raise £2m – it rapidly became the top-trending hashtag on Twitter. Credit to Tomlinson for putting (some of) his money where his mouth is – though some Donny fans may baulk at the idea of stumping up to subsidise a millionaire’s plaything.