Editorial: Closed blinds vs closed minds

If Labour defended the poor, it might find support from some in the Government

It is George Osborne's cynicism that is so depressing. Plainly, in last month's Autumn Statement he did not announce the real-terms cut in state benefits over the next three years simply to embarrass the Labour Party. The failure of his economic policy to generate as much growth as hoped meant that he needed to find new spending cuts and tax rises if he were to prevent borrowing from rising again. The welfare budget was an obvious candidate for another salami slice. Hence the rise in benefits, apart from carer and disability benefits, of 1 per cent a year for three years, which means, given that inflation is expected to run at just over 2 per cent, that most benefits will be cut by about 1 per cent a year in real terms.

Yet the relish with which the Chancellor has pursued the theme from his party conference speech about "the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits", is tasteless. And the calculation with which he has forced a vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday on his benefits cut is naked.

Tuesday's vote is an exercise in drawing artificial dividing lines from which even Gordon Brown, the arch-exponent of such crude politics, might have shrunk.

Curiously, it is Ed Balls, formerly Mr Brown's adviser and now Mr Osborne's shadow, who deserves some praise for taking the principled position of opposing the cut in benefits. The Shadow Chancellor has asserted vigorously that 60 per cent of those affected by the cut are in work, receiving tax credits. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor obviously hope that, because public opinion inevitably trades in simple notions, their attempt to paint Labour as the friend of the "closed blinds" shirker will prevail.

Certainly the opinion research published last week by the Trades Union Congress seemed, inadvertently, to confirm this view, suggesting that those who are least well informed about state benefits are most likely to believe that they are too generous, and that they go to undeserving people.

On the other hand, it is possible that, as austerity bites, people understand what is happening in the labour market better than they did in the boom years. We hope that it is more generally recognised than it used to be that most people on benefit want to work, and that tax credits are an important part of making work pay for many low-paid workers.

The other reason for thinking that Mr Osborne's cynical approach might fail is the effect that it is having on the Government. That Nick Clegg might be uncomfortable with "closed blinds" politics is not surprising, and he has publicly warned his coalition partners against "peddling the myth" that "no one could possibly be out of work unless they're a scrounger".

But it is reported that Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, is also unhappy with some of his colleagues' "closed blinds" rhetoric. Mr Duncan Smith's welfare reforms are in danger, but he knows two things: that our benefits system needs to be reformed, and that this cannot be done on the cheap.

If Labour made the strong argument against blaming the poor, and mostly the working poor, for their poverty, in this week's debate, it might find that it had support not just among the voters but among some of Mr Osborne's colleagues in Government.