By Tim Montgomerie
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2013 starts with some good news. After repeatedly attacking his Coalition partners (on Europe, on wanting to cut welfare too much, on property taxes and general Right-wingery in recent weeks) the Deputy Prime Minister has turned his fire on Labour this morning. Let's hope it's a New Year's resolution.
Writing for The Times (£) Mr Clegg accuses the Labour Party of failing to show any leadership on the economic problems facing Britain. "The country," he writes, "has undergone the biggest economic crisis in living memory, yet they offer no explanation of how they’d get us out of this mess, nor any admission of responsibility for their part in creating it."
The topical focus of the Lib Dem leader's article is Labour's decision to oppose the 1% squeeze in benefits that is due to be voted on by MPs next week:
"They say they’ll vote against limiting the planned rise in benefits to 1 per cent. That means they believe welfare claimants should see a bigger rise than the 1 per cent that public sector workers will get on their wages — which they support. So Labour must show how they’d pay for it. Would they cut hospital budgets? Schools? Defence?"
Mr Clegg continues:
"To oppose everything is to offer nothing, and the country will not be duped. The biggest divide in politics today — here and around the world — is between those who offer leadership and those who only offer dissent. It’s the difference between braving the storm to steer the ship away from the rocks, or waiting until morning only to find you’re left with a wreck."
In signs of a concerted Coalition push on the issue Iain Duncan Smith releases figures from his own Department which show that average benefits rose by 20% over the last five years but the average weekly wage for private sector workers rose by less than 12%. He tells the Daily Mail:
"‘Working people across the country have been tightening their belts after years of pay restraint while at the same time watching benefits increase. That is not fair. The welfare state under Labour effectively trapped thousands of families into dependency as it made no sense to give up the certainty of a benefit payment in order to go back to work."
The Coalition is right to squeeze benefits. It's right because we need to make a lot more progress on deficit reduction and we also need to incentivise people to leave benefits and get a foot on the employment ladder, however lowly paid it might first be. As I've argued before (point two), however, our tone must be regretful rather than giving any sign that we are relishing this decision. Living on benefits is far from easy and below-inflation increases are going to make life harder for many people.
In their interventions today Messrs Clegg and Duncan Smith got the tone, substance and politics right. Long may that continue.