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Labour has its welfare policy backwards

The policy announcements of Labour’s new Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Rachel Reeves, have attracted quite a bit of comment today for a number of reasons.

There are those, such as Owen Jones, who believe that Labour is effectively endorsing the “scrounger rhetoric” of the Tories, playing into their hands by allowing the Tories to set working-class people against one another. And there are others who have argued that, once you look beyond the headlines and examine the party’s policies in detail, that they are actually progressive, fair and far more workable than the disastrous Tory schemes that have already pitched thousands into poverty, and threaten to do the same to many more.

Both points have merit. The divide-and-rule tactics of the Tories have been clear for some time; Labour does itself no favours by endorsing them. And below the headlines, there are some positive grains to be found within the policies announced (or, more properly, reiterated, since there is little new here) today.

While it is true that the abolition of the hateful bedroom tax and an end to exploitative workfare schemes are welcome developments, I cannot endorse Labour’s policy of a “jobs guarantee” after two years of unemployment, with punitive sanctions for those who do not comply.

The reason is straightforward. Throughout their time in office, the Tories have demonstrated a lack of joined-up thinking, seemingly failing to realise that their assault on working people’s living standards will inevitably impact the amount of money they spend on goods and services, harming the economy – which is one of the key reasons why the UK’s recovery has been so sluggish.

Labour’s welfare policy demonstrates the same lack of coherent thought. It is not enough to say that we will guarantee a job for everyone who has been out of work for two years. We should not need to say this.

What we should be doing, instead, is to focus all of our energies on creating full employment as our central economic aim. There would be no need to “create jobs” for the long-term unemployed, because these jobs would have already created themselves, in an environment where job creation is the top priority.

Reducing unemployment to almost nothing is a noble aim for many reasons; it would improve purchasing power and lower the welfare bill, to name just two. It is wrong for welfare policies to punish those who are unemployed simply because of a lack of jobs in the economy; full employment would remove this contradiction, and the “carrot and stick” approach to welfare endorsed by all major parties would carry some moral weight.

The jobs guarantee smacks of the sort of wishy-washy tinkering around the edges that promises “real change” without ever actually delivering it. Rather than endorsing the Tories’ economic approach – that unemployment is just something we have to live with, even “a price worth paying,” as it was once infamously said – we should be challenging it, with radical ideas of our own.

Then, and only then, can we start the discussion on how best to deal with the “workshy.”


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What Will Labour Do For Me? A four-point plan

It’s conference season again. The Labour Party goes to Manchester in a buoyant mood, with the major polling companies registering double-digit leads, the government lurching from one disaster to another, and the sniping from the party’s hard right unusually quiet, for the moment.

Doubts still linger over whether Ed Miliband is the right person to lead Labour into the next election. Increasingly, however, those doubts centre around his effectiveness and assertiveness as an opponent of the government, rather than whether he passes various tests of ideological purity – mostly posed by the party’s right.

One key concern is that Ed speaks in the language of the policy wonk, the focus group, rather than the voter. Terms like “responsible capitalism” and “predistribution” are all very well, and signal a welcome change in Labour’s ideological direction, but they don’t speak to ordinary voters.

What Labour needs to do now is to solidify its opinion poll lead, by telling voters what, exactly, a Labour government will do for them. How do these noble theoretical ideas translate into the reality of government? How, moreover, do we win back voters on low incomes, feeling the squeeze of a financial crisis they didn’t cause and are now paying for?

There are some simple, achievable aims Labour can set out, to directly improve the lot of these people, with some modest policy proposals. Here are four of the most important – answering that most significant of questions; What will Labour do for us?

1. A Labour government will increase your salary.
We will do this by ensuring the national minimum wage is maintained at the level of a Living Wage.

2. A Labour government will reduce your tax bill.
We will do this by replacing council tax with a local land value tax, ending the unfair and outdated system of banding.

3. A Labour government will reduce your rent.
We will do this by introducing rent controls for all landlords, with increases in rents restricted to the rate of inflation.

4. A Labour government will reduce your bills.
We will do this by bringing energy providers back into public ownership, ending profiteering in the energy sector.

These four policies are straightforward enough, and speak to voters by directly stating how they will improve their lives.

Not all voters will be impacted by the introduction of a Living Wage, and homeowners won’t be affected by rent controls. But those on low incomes and private renters are voters we need to target; furthermore, a more progressive form of local government financing and reduced energy prices are policies that can have a broader appeal.

And even if the precise policies are ones that Labour can’t or won’t deliver, the premise is clear: we need to start speaking to voters, directly, about what a future Labour government can do for them.

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