Ooh, what’s this in Ed Miliband’s recent article for the Sun on Sunday? “If we are to tackle the deficit, we also have to do more to control social security spending.” That sounds like a sensible policy. But what does Ed exactly mean by it? “That means making tough choices this government has ducked like…”
…Wait for it…
“…scrapping the Winter Fuel Allowance for the richest 5 per cent of pensioners.”
I’m no advocate for universal pensioner perks such as the Winter Fuel Allowance. In fact, I think they should be withdrawn from the wealthy with righteous haste. But if Miliband thinks that “scrapping the Winter Fuel Allowance for the richest 5 per cent of pensioners” is a clench-fisted, tough policy by which he can paint the Coalition as a bunch of soft do-nothings, he’s rather mistaken.
All of which is indicative of the Labour leader’s position on welfare, the subject of this fourth post in our Pinning Down Miliband series. He’s straining to match the Tories’ hard rhetoric and harder accountancy, but he has little to back it up with. He wants to talk cuts, not actually implement cuts.
Shouldn’t we give Miliband time? Couldn’t he announce further cuts to universal benefits closer to the election? Here, an interview he gave to the Guardian in 2010, before ascending to the Labour throne, is worth recalling. In that interview, Miliband forcefully defended the principle of universalism. “It speaks to another important thing,” he said:
“…are you for a residual welfare state that is just for the poor, which is the Tory position, or are you for a more inclusive welfare state?”
Which, in turn, speaks to something else: Miliband will either have to ignore his belief in a “more inclusive welfare state”, or he just won’t ever look far beyond those wealthiest 5 per cent of Winter Fuel Allowance recipients.
Besides, there’s another reason to doubt that Miliband will reach for the pruning shears – and, again, it’s contained within that Sun on Sunday article. In truth, the Labour leader’s welfare prescriptions didn’t end with that Winter Fuel Allowance policy. He continued:
“But to deal with welfare spending properly, we will need to make big reforms to cut the costs of failure in the system. We will build more homes to get the costs of housing benefit down. We will give employers an incentive to pay workers a living wage to get the cost of tax credits down. We will introduce a compulsory jobs guarantee for the long term jobless – which means they lose benefits if they don’t take the work offered – to get the bill for unemployment benefit down.”
In other words, he doesn’t really want to be tough on the welfare budget, he wants to be tough on the causes of the welfare budget. Savings should emerge not from the Treasury’s spreadsheets but from changing folks’ lives.
There’s much to recommend this approach. It’s analogous to what Iain Duncan Smith is doing by encouraging people back into work, even if the Work and Pensions Secretary does believe that predetermined cuts will help with that task. But it does still rest on some huge unknowables. “We will build more homes,” says Miliband. That’s fine. But how? And how long will it take, and at what expense, before it starts to reduce the benefits bill?
This sort of breezy Utopianism lies behind much of Miliband’s policy. Even when he says something that sounds pragmatic, he’s generally asking us to take him on trust because it will all be alright in the end, honest, guv. The cap on social security spending that he announced in a speech last year is a perfect example. He didn’t, as Mark Wallace pointed out at the time, actually specify what level that cap would be set at – that would be the purview of an “independent body”, natch – nor what would stop it being breached, nor… well, you get the picture. Just trust him, yeah.
As with Labour’s fiscal plan – which I sifted through a couple of weeks ago – it all reduces down to credibility. But, even putting aside the party’s record in Government (when real-terms social security spending rose, both before and after the financial crisis), the Miliband leadership hasn’t done much to court our credence.
Worst of all – worse than everything I’ve mentioned above – has been Miliband’s quickfire opposition to almost every Coalition welfare policy. CCHQ claim that Labour have opposed £83 billion’s worth of welfare savings. But it’s the specific examples that tell the story more eloquently. You know that hated “bedroom tax”? At first, despite all their protestations, Labour wouldn’t promise to repeal it entirely. Then, despite their prior insistence that they couldn’t yet commit to reversing any Coalition cuts, they changed their minds. One day it’s this, another day it’s that. Not the best way to convince voters that you stand for something.
This Milimud has obscured some of the more promising parts of his own prospectus – such as his Beveridge-like emphasis on contribution – just as its obscured the better parts of Labour’s legacy. One of the few things that Gordon Brown actually got right was installing James Purnell as Work and Pensions Secretary, who then implemented some of the welfare reforms that the Coalition has since taken over and bolstered. But what Miliband thinks of these reforms, from the Work Programme to IDS’s Universal Credit, is unclear. Would he keep them going? Would he revamp them? Would he terminate them? The Labour leader shouts very loudly, without really saying anything.
And this is the problem for Miliband: he clearly wants to draw a charcoal-black dividing line over benefits at the next election, but he doesn’t seem to know where. Sometimes he’s the axeman, sometimes he’s a shield against the cuts. Sometimes he’s a reformer, sometimes he forgets what reform is. No wonder that, when it comes to welfare, the polling is so much in the Tories’ favour.