Why Labour's position on welfare needs urgent reform

A poll shows Labour's tougher stance on cuts has not increased support. What about standing up for t

The papers this morning are dominated by one story: the Lords defeat of the government's proposed welfare cap.

An alliance of bishops, Liberal Democrat rebels, and crossbench and Labour peers voted in favour of an amendment to Iain Duncan Smith's flagship benefits cap. The Lords voted 252-237 to exclude child benefit from the £26,000 per year cap on household benefits. This marks the welfare reform bill's fifth defeat in the upper house.

In the end, the amendment was backed by Labour -- although, as my colleague George Eaton explained yesterday, this was by no means a simple position:

Somewhat confusingly, Labour doesn't actually want child benefit exempted from the cap (which it supports in principle). Rather, it is supporting the amendment as a means of getting the welfare bill back to the Commons, where a new vote can be held on its homelessness amendment.

Why the labyrinthine stance on this? Well, some of this morning's headlines might hold a clue. ""Insult to every working family," screams the Daily Mail's front page, railing against the bishops who led the revolt. The Sun also rounds on the bishops for "meddling" in politics.

The fact is, as I blogged yesterday, an overwhelming majority of the public are in favour of a cap on benefits -- support stands at 76 per cent of the public at large and 69 per cent of Labour supporters. This puts Labour in a tricky spot: as a party, it should stand up for the most vulnerable, yet it does not want to fly in the face of public opinion, hence the slightly baffling line that they support the cap "in principle, but not in practice".

This attempt to have their cake and eat it -- supporting the benefit cap (and cuts more widely) while also not supporting it -- is not having the desired effect, if this morning's polls are to be believed. A Guardian/ICM poll gives the Conservatives a five point lead over Labour (at 40 and 35, respectively) -- their highest standing since before the general election. This would place the Tories on the verge of an outright majority at a general election. It is worth noting that this substantial lead may be an outlier: both YouGov and Populus today give Labour a one point lead.

Debate over Labour's new, harder stance on the cuts has dominated the last week or so, and the ICM poll contains some interesting results on this. Asked how the tougher position affected likelihood to support Labour, 72 per cent said it made no difference one way or another. Just 10 per cent said it would make them more likely to vote Labour, while 13 per cent said it made them less likely to vote for the party. This gives the shift a net rating of minus three points.

Labour top command will doubtless say that the party's economic shift has simply not yet had time to get through to voters. Yet, as Mary Riddell argues persuasively in the Telegraph today, the problem may be more deep-seated than that:

Though pathetically slight, the curbs unveiled by Vince Cable prove that, on executive pay, the Labour leader has the Tories on the run. But Mr Miliband's failure to be equally clear about the needs, the responsibilities and the rights of those at the bottom of society has made him the victim of his own fairness campaign. The "squeezed middle", as he is learning, can and will exert a cobra grip on those further down the social heap.


Welfare, not wealth, may prove the defining issue of Mr Miliband's leadership. In the coming weeks, he must prove that he can wrong-foot Mr Cameron on the poor as well as on the rich. Labour, of all parties, must stand up unequivocally for those in greatest need. "Leave it to the bishops" is not an election-winning slogan.

Labour needs to start reframing the debate and conveying to the public why the cap is unfair (and looking at ways of ending benefit dependence while mitigating the negative impacts), not simply trying to benefit from public support for a policy the party is clearly uncomfortable with.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Metro mayors can help Labour return to government

Labour champions in the new city regions can help their party at the national level too.

2017 will mark the inaugural elections of directly-elected metro mayors across England. In all cases, these mayor and cabinet combined authorities are situated in Labour heartlands, and as such Labour should look confidently at winning the whole slate.

Beyond the good press winning again will generate, these offices provide an avenue for Labour to showcase good governance, and imperatively, provide vocal opposition to the constraints of local government by Tory cuts.

The introduction of the Mayor of London in 2000 has provided a blueprint for how the media can provide a platform for media-friendly leadership. It has also demonstrated the ease that the office allows for attribution of successes to that individual and party – or misappropriated in context of Boris Bikes and to a lesser extent the London Olympics.

While without the same extent of the powers of the sui generis mayor of the capital, the prospect of additional metro-mayors provide an opportunity for replicating these successes while providing experience for Labour big-hitters to develop themselves in government. This opportunity hasn’t gone unnoticed, and after Sadiq Khan’s victory in London has shown that the role can grow beyond the limitations – perceived or otherwise - of the Corbyn shadow cabinet while strengthening team Labour’s credibility by actually being in power.

Shadow Health Secretary and former leadership candidate Andy Burnham’s announcement last week for Greater Manchester was the first big hitter to make his intention known. The rising star of Luciana Berger, another member of Labour’s health team, is known to be considering a run in the Liverpool City Region. Could we also see them joined by the juggernaut of Liam Byrne in the West Midlands, or next-generation Catherine McKinnell in the North East?

If we can get a pantheon of champions elected across these city regions, to what extent can this have an influence on national elections? These new metro areas represent around 11.5 million people, rising to over 20 million if you include Sadiq’s Greater London. While no doubt that is an impressive audience that our Labour pantheon are able to demonstrate leadership to, there are limitations. 80 of the 94 existing Westminster seats who are covered under the jurisdiction of the new metro-mayors are already Labour seats. While imperative to solidify our current base for any potential further electoral decline, in order to maximise the impact that this team can have on Labour’s resurgence there needs to be visibility beyond residents.

The impact of business is one example where such influence can be extended. Andy Burnham for example has outlined his case to make Greater Manchester the creative capital of the UK. According to the ONS about 150,000 people commute into Greater Manchester, which is two constituency’s worth of people that can be directly influenced by the Mayor of Greater Manchester.

Despite these calculations and similar ones that can be made in other city-regions, the real opportunity with selecting the right Labour candidates is the media impact these champion mayors can make on the national debate. This projects the influence from the relatively-safe Labour regions across the country. This is particularly important to press the blame of any tightening of belts in local fiscal policy on the national Tory government’s cuts. We need individuals who have characteristics of cabinet-level experience, inspiring leadership, high profile campaigning experience and tough talking opposition credentials to support the national party leadership put the Tory’s on the narrative back foot.

That is not to say there are not fine local council leaders and technocrats who’s experience and governance experience at vital to Labour producing local successes. But the media don’t really care who number two is, and these individuals are best serving the national agenda for the party if they support A-listers who can shine a bright spotlight on our successes and Tory mismanagement.

If Jeremy Corbyn and the party are able to topple the Conservatives come next election, then all the better that we have a diverse team playing their part both on the front bench and in the pantheon of metro-mayors. If despite our best efforts Jeremy’s leadership falls short, then we will have experienced leaders in waiting who have been able to afford some distance from the front-bench, untainted and able to take the party’s plan B forward.