Nothing in British politics is harder than welfare reform. The dogfight over it is a distraction

Nuanced arguments, such as those of David Miliband, gain less traction than they deserve as the goal of delivering fair, affordable welfare seems as distant as ever

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There is welfare reform and the politics of welfare reform. The connection between the two is very limited. The politics is loud, brutal and simplistic. The Conservatives’ clunky strategist, George Osborne, has sought to portray the benefit cut as proof that his party is on the side of strivers and not shirkers. The Labour leadership fights back with its own populist line that David Cameron and Osborne plan a tax cut for millionaires while hitting the strivers on low pay.

Both are potent soundbites, but do not lead very far. While Labour will struggle a little to prove that it is not planning to waste a fortune on welfare, the Conservative leadership will not make much headway in demonstrating  it has hit upon a device that targets lazy skivers alone, not least because it has not done so. Already some ministers are softening the message. On The World at One yesterday, Ken Clarke explicitly refused to frame the argument as one that divides strivers from shirkers.

Thatcherite ferocity

If Cameron and Osborne had been told in the early years of their leadership, when they claimed to be progressive centrists, they would revert to the tonal pugnacity of the Tories in the 1980s in relation to welfare, I suspect they would have been worried. Now they affect to be after the shirkers alone with as much ferocity as their Thatcherite predecessors.

In this, they overestimate again the willingness of Labour’s leadership to walk blindly into a trap. It has opposed the specific benefit cut but not without coming up with populist arguments of its own, repeated relentlessly. New Labour may be history, but those in the current leadership brought up on its neurotic defensiveness will not casually concede they are supporters of spending huge sums on the lazy. Not surprisingly, the debate in the Shadow Cabinet was agonised, a thousand alarm bells ringing, but I am told that, contrary to some reports, no frontbencher argued that Labour should support the benefit cut. The debate was over how to frame an argument that would not lose them the next election.

In spite of hitting on its own simplistic populism, Labour has not escaped yet from a slightly different trap set by Cameron/Osborne. Cameron generously gave a preview at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday when he argued that because Labour opposed his benefit cuts there would be a “black hole” in the Government’s tax and spending plans. It could only be filled by other spending cuts or tax rises. In fact, neither Ed Miliband nor Ed Balls have said they contemplate spending more overall on welfare than the Coalition.

Indeed, they argue, perhaps optimistically, that under their “job guarantee” proposals welfare bills will go down because more current claimants would be in work. A similar proposition was made by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the lead-up to the 1997 election when they argued that high welfare spending was a sign of failure not success.

Yet when David Miliband in a first-rate speech in the Commons on Tuesday argued that iniquitous benefits cuts could be avoided by fairer redistribution within the existing welfare budget, his robustly progressive argument was taken as a rebuke to Miliband and Balls because the duo propose to spend more on welfare. They do not have such a plan and yet the assumption that they do is evidently widely held – another example of why the stakes are high in the political battle even though the arguments are not based on actual policy.

The actual policies are more nuanced and the real challenges daunting. Cameron/Osborne can claim with good cause to be acting fairly in targeting child benefit for the better-off. On this, Labour has some explaining to do, defending benefits for millionaires. But the Conservatives’ case is incoherent because they support other universal benefits for the elderly, including the rich. Several Tory ministers insist privately, and to some extent in public, that the pledge to keep these particular universal benefits will be scrapped at the next election. It will not be easy.

Disguised consensus

From my experience, the affluent over-sixties love their benefits with an irrational fervour, especially free travel in London. When I argue with well-off older friends that their costly benefits should be taken away they nearly kill me. Similarly, the Labour leadership, rightly attacking cuts in benefit for the poorest in work and the daft decision to reduce the top rate of income tax, has even more explaining to do as to why it supports other generous benefits for elderly millionaires.

Beyond the noisy debate, there is quite a lot of consensus over welfare: work should always pay; those capable of work should be encouraged or compelled to do so; and those genuinely incapable should be supported. Of course, the twist is that each of these broad objectives raises nightmarishly complex questions. No government has answered them. Instead, each successive adminstration promises a welfare revolution. New Labour even staged welfare revolution roadshows before deciding what form it  should take. The Coalition hails its own revolution amid economic gloom in which jobs and affordable housing are scarce. In the 1980s, Tory ministers sang about their revolutionary plans to ecstatic party conferences.

We’ve had many revolutions and fuming political rows. The impossibly demanding task of delivering a fair and affordable modern welfare state remains unmet.

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