Iain Duncan Smith today finds himself attacked from an unexpected quarter. Rachel Reeves, the new shadow work and pensions secretary, says Labour would be “tougher” than he is at forcing the unemployed to accept the offer of a job: “If they don’t take it they will forfeit their benefit.”
Reeves was recently described as “boring snoring”, but this intervention is anything but dull. To attack Duncan Smith for not going far enough is distinctly refreshing.
Labour knows the welfare reforms are immensely popular. It cannot afford to fight the next general election as the party of the status quo ante: the party of the slob on the sofa.
It is an enormous compliment to Duncan Smith that Labour is now trying to compete with him in this way. The Opposition’s jobs guarantee scheme does not look remotely plausible: apart from anything else, it is to be paid for by a tax on bankers’ bonuses. And as Mark Wallace recently pointed out on ConHome, Ed Balls has already found eleven different uses for a “tax on banks”.
But the vindication of the Coalition’s direction of travel is still very valuable. And something similar can be seen today in education policy.
Tristram Hunt, the new shadow education secretary, says he supports the idea of parents setting up schools: “There are lots of parents out there who want to set up schools. What I am saying is that if you want to do that when we are in government we will be on your side. There has been this perception that we would not be, and I want people to be absolutely clear that we are. I am putting rocket boosters on getting behind parents and social entrepreneurs.”
One may doubt whether these rocket boosters would be of the slightest practical as opposed to rhetorical value. Hunt says that “parent-led academies”, as Labour’s version of free schools are known, will only be allowed in areas with a shortage of places, and that local government will still be able to interfere when things go wrong.
But this is a marked change from the days when Hunt dismissed free schools as “a vanity project for yummy mummies” – an aspersion which accurately reflected Labour’s instinctive hostility to the idea, but which he has now retracted.
So like Duncan Smith, Michael Gove has turned out to be far more in tune with public opinion than Labour was, and is now dragging his opponents along in his wake.