When the going gets tough

It is becoming clear that the run up to the general election will increasingly turn into a game of one-upmanship. With each populist pledge the Conservatives make regarding immigration or welfare, Labour is prompted to bring out its own version.

In October, as Rachel Reeves took over from Liam Byrne as the shadow work and pensions secretary, she vowed that ‘Labour would be tougher on welfare than the Tories’. This approach confirmed the Conservatives’ success in reframing the debate, where being ‘tough’ had become the mark of a good welfare policy and the two parties had to ‘out-tough’ each other in order to win the public vote.

But this is clearly problematic for the Labour party, whose members and likely supporters are more resistant to this course of action. The way in which today’s policy announcement – basic skills assessment and mandatory training for those who need it at the point of claiming JSA – was trailed in two contrary ways demonstrates this.

For left-wing media outlets, it is described as a positive: getting skills support to people sooner than the Tories (whose policy is to provide mandatory skills training after three years). But the way it was pitched to the benefits-sceptics made it sound like another form of conditionality, or punishment to dissuade those from claiming funds from the state. The Telegraph announced‘Benefits claimants will be forced to sit a test showing they can read, write and do maths in order to claim benefits’ – entirely and wilfully missing the point.

The risk, of course, is that announcements designed to please both sides only get the worst of both worlds. And so it is that Rachel Reeves has been criticised by the left for her faux-conservative punitive stance, while the Conservatives are declaring that these new ideas ‘aren’t tough at all’ on benefit claimants. This latest policy may not win friends on either side.

A little more creativity on welfare is clearly in order. Rather than trying to out-tough IDS – and more importantly, describing rather good policies as ‘tough’ on claimants rather than explaining why they are so good – Labour should make the most of the jewel in their welfare policy crown: the jobs guarantee, as part of a wider personalised alternative to the clunky Work Programme.  Support which blends early mental health support and condition management, immediate access to skills training, confidence building and offering valuable in-work training, all underpinned by claimants having more of a say and choice over the sorts of training and support they receive, would be a breath of fresh air when compared to the one-size-fits-all approach currently on offer. More importantly, it would be more effective at bringing down welfare spending without resorting to inflicting needless hardship and creating false economies by increasing homelessness and health costs.

The party should also explore the relatively untapped narrative of  being ‘tough’ on the causes of welfare spending – to explain policies which tackle exorbitant rents, poverty-line wages, and workplaces so inflexible that disabled people are regularly faced with a choice of working full time or not at all. These sustainable welfare reductions can be contrasted to the short-termist and reckless cuts to housing benefits made by the Conservatives, which, in treating the symptoms rather than the cause, are sure to drive up costs in the medium and long term.

With these sorts of policies front and centre, Labour wouldn’t need to resort to IDS’s line to gain popularity. It would have a different strength – one which said it was standing up to vested interests, and providing rapid back-to-work support that was so robust (underpinned in the last resort by a jobs guarantee for young people) that penalising people for long term claiming wouldn’t even be necessary.

We can’t forget Labour know how to frame a debate too. Ed Miliband’s fuel price cap policy landed well, as did last week’s pledge to break up the banks. These announcements have forced the Tories into a position whereby they must either come up with their own version of his policies, or be seen to defend the utility companies, banks, fat cats and other villains of the public mindset. In other words, Ed has done to the Tories on banks what IDS has done to Labour on welfare.

But so far, IDS has been better at it. Those on benefits are now such a pariah that Labour are struggling to find a space to differentiate themselves from the Tory line in a way which doesn’t play to damaging stereotypes of Labour being spenders and soft on slackers. If Labour falls into the trap of assuming this is binary choice, or that there is only one definition of ‘tough’, then weeks of brinkmanship over who can penalise benefits claimants further has only just begun.