By Harry Phibbs
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Presenting his first budget in 1997 Gordon Brown said:
Tomorrow the Secretary for Education and Employment will detail the four options. All involve training leading to qualifications: a job with an employer; work with a voluntary organisation; work on the environmental task force; and, for those without basic qualifications, full time education or training.
With these new opportunities for young people come new responsibilities. There will be no fifth option – to stay at home on full benefit. So when they sign on for benefit they will be signing up
for work. Benefits will be cut if young people refuse to take up the opportunities.
The previous month the new Prime Minister Tony Blair had been to the Aylesbury estate in Southwark and said:
Today Britain has a higher proportion of single parent families than anywhere else in Europe. We should be encouraging people, like single mothers, who are anxious to work but unable to, to get back into the labour market. And I say that is not punishment, that is empowerment.
In a speech at Toynbee Hall two years later Mr Blair complained that "previous governments were satisfied simply to dole out money." He added that "the welfare state need no longer be delivered only through the state or through traditional methods of Government. Public/private partnership and the voluntary sector will have and should have a greater role to play."
Mr Blair predicted "we will have welfare spending under control. Good spending on areas we want money spent on -like child benefit and pensions – is going up. Bad spending on the bills of economic failure is coming down." He wanted "a welfare system which is active" "genuinely providing people with a "hand up" not a "hand-out"."
In another speech in 2002 he said:
Many people with a health problem or disability could and do want to work – yet don't. It is a scandal that 2.7m people on incapacity and disability benefits are written off, left to drift into long-term incapacity and unemployment. Five months into their claim for incapacity benefit, over 90% of people expect to return to work. But in practice, 44% will still be on IB six months later; and of those fewer than one in five will be working five years after that. Something is wrong – the current system is working against people's expectations.
It was pretty much all talk, of course. Dependency got worse. Welfare spending rose, in real terms, 45% between 2000 and 2010 (to take the Treasury's estimate of "social protection" spending.)
You might take the view that it was a heroic, principled failure by Mr Blair – that his sincere efforts at reform were thwarted. Or you might argue that no serious effort was made and that he was just "phony Tony."
Either way, at least New Labour set out what they aimed to do.
What would Ed Miliband and Ed Balls do about the important welfare reforms being brought in this week? Their voters back sanctions for those who refuse work. But their Party members, their MPs and the trade unions do not. Labour MPs were ordered to abstain in a vote last month but over 40 voted against. On top of that we had a front bench spokesman dutifully abstaining, but tweeting in praise of the rebels.
The rebellion was largely ignored by the media. Sometimes the opposition is frustrated by the difficulty of getting attention but in this case Ed Miliband should count himself lucky. It is not so much that so many of his MPs voted against benefit sanctions, but his own feeble official stance.
A Labour Government would need to decide whether or not to reverse the welfare reforms. If they would reverse them, they need to to explain how they would finance the increased welfare spending. If they would not reverse them, then they should pipe down about how "immoral" the changes are.
In Government decisions have to be made. Abstaining is not enough.