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.

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It's Gary Lineker 1, the Sun 0

The football hero has found himself at the heart of a Twitter storm over the refugee children debate.

The Mole wonders what sort of topsy-turvy universe we now live in where Gary Lineker is suddenly being called a “political activist” by a Conservative MP? Our favourite big-eared football pundit has found himself in a war of words with the Sun newspaper after wading into the controversy over the age of the refugee children granted entry into Britain from Calais.

Pictures published earlier this week in the right-wing press prompted speculation over the migrants' “true age”, and a Tory MP even went as far as suggesting that these children should have their age verified by dental X-rays. All of which leaves your poor Mole with a deeply furrowed brow. But luckily the British Dental Association was on hand to condemn the idea as unethical, inaccurate and inappropriate. Phew. Thank God for dentists.

Back to old Big Ears, sorry, Saint Gary, who on Wednesday tweeted his outrage over the Murdoch-owned newspaper’s scaremongering coverage of the story. He smacked down the ex-English Defence League leader, Tommy Robinson, in a single tweet, calling him a “racist idiot”, and went on to defend his right to express his opinions freely on his feed.

The Sun hit back in traditional form, calling for Lineker to be ousted from his job as host of the BBC’s Match of the Day. The headline they chose? “Out on his ears”, of course, referring to the sporting hero’s most notable assets. In the article, the tabloid lays into Lineker, branding him a “leftie luvvie” and “jug-eared”. The article attacked him for describing those querying the age of the young migrants as “hideously racist” and suggested he had breached BBC guidelines on impartiality.

All of which has prompted calls for a boycott of the Sun and an outpouring of support for Lineker on Twitter. His fellow football hero Stan Collymore waded in, tweeting that he was on “Team Lineker”. Leading the charge against the Murdoch-owned title was the close ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Channel 4 News economics editor, Paul Mason, who tweeted:

Lineker, who is not accustomed to finding himself at the centre of such highly politicised arguments on social media, responded with typical good humour, saying he had received a bit of a “spanking”.

All of which leaves the Mole with renewed respect for Lineker and an uncharacteristic desire to watch this weekend’s Match of the Day to see if any trace of his new activist persona might surface.


I'm a mole, innit.