The Labour party has been looking for ways to capitalise on the public’s apparent distaste for benefits.
When Rachel Reeves replaced Liam Byrne as the party’s work and pensions spokesperson last month she wasted no time in hardening Labour’s stance.
In her first major policy interview she promised to make her party ‘tougher than the Tories’ on welfare, earning a rebuke from union leaders in the process.
They pointed out that few people would voluntarily choose to exist on £10 a day - £8 for the under-25s – and said the unemployed were being “treated like criminals for not finding work that doesn't exist.”
The reason for Reeves’s appointment appears to have been to give Labour a fresh start on welfare, helping them close the gap to the Tories who have found plenty of support – more than they could possibly have hoped for when examining options for spending cuts – for their policies.
Given this short-term political success, it will come as little surprise that the latest plans attributed to Reeves have shown a hardening of the anti-social security line.
This morning’s papers were full of headlines trumpeting a plan to end benefits for the under-25s, a bizarre and infantilising idea when dealing with the needs of adults.
The claims were denied by Reeves, who said Labour was committed to a job guarantee for younger people with mandatory participation on pain of losing benefits as its key policy.
If the denial is true it is welcome. The ending of young people’s benefits is an idea originated by think tank IPPR, but it is more full of holes than the streets of a local authority after austerity cuts.
Firstly, it isn’t an end to benefits. The proposal is that Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) would be replaced by something called a ‘youth allowance’ for those not in education or employment.
But the value of this is £56.80, the same as JSA.
To be eligible for it a young person would need to be in training or undertake ‘intensive’ jobsearch, and here is the first problem.
Since sanctions for not looking hard enough for work became commonplace, ‘intensive’ jobsearch is the only sort you can do that will allow you to keep your JSA.
Another issue is what to do with those who have been working. The policy seems to assume that the issue for all young people is the same, a lack of work and/or skills, when many have been working for years before unemployment. Is a 24 year old made redundant after years of service in the same position and with the same needs as a 24 year old who has never worked? Are they deserving of the same judgments?
The IPPR idea treats them both the same, and ignores the payment of National Insurance contributions that are supposed to provide safeguards in the bad times.
Means testing of the benefit is another strange idea when the income of parents is the one being tested. The policy starts to redefine the period of childhood, which for unemployed people would not end until 21. How many parents would be willing to support their children until this late in their lives, and do all of those not in employment, education or training have the kind of home lives that act as a sanctuary in hard times? Should we even consider adults in this way?
Both the job guarantee and benefit cut plan are examples of the type of policy we are likely to be seeing more of as Labour firms up its offer before the election, ones that have decent social aims but can be sold with a tough message.
Perhaps you think these misleading announcements are necessary; after all, Tony Blair won three elections by ‘talking right and acting left’.
But there must be a better and more honest way. One of the main reasons why a majority of the public is anti-benefits is that no powerful group – no major political party or large circulation newspaper – puts the case in favour. It’s one of the main reasons why we started UnemployedNet.
The solution to this lies in leadership. We are living in a time when all parties follow polls slavishly, and these have been pulling politicians to the right since the financial crisis made cuts seem like the only reasonable response.
Labour has been stuck in its policy review holding position since 2010s, only recently starting to release the first elements of its offer for the 2015 election.
The vacuum created by this has left the floor open to the excesses of the Conservatives, who, threatened by UKIP, have themselves been drifting rightwards, earning rebukes from John Major in the process.
When Labour re-entered the fray they found the centre ground on welfare had moved to the right and their newly-made policies are looking to insert themselves here.
The question is whether voters will consider this authentic.
Polling- and focus group-lead parties struggle to connect, and the electorate is unlikely to consider a Labour party that is tougher on benefits than the Conservatives to be true to its real views.
An authentic party that has the courage to challenge mainstream views, though, is likely to win respect.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but if Labour wants to be taken more seriously it may be better off trying to change minds on welfare rather than following prevailing opinion and tacking to the right.
Those claimants at the sharp end who have seen such demotivating attacks on their characters and impoverishing cuts to their benefits may then get the representation they so need and deserve.