Labour's challenge to Osborne's attack on the poor could be a turning point

If Labour perseveres, it might change the terms of debate on a fundamental issue.

This week could mark a turning point for Labour and everyone who wants to live in a better society. On a crucial political framing issue, the leader of the Labour Party refused to follow the right to the right. The issue was benefit cuts and if an admittedly long but tactically and clever game is played we might change the terms of debate on a fundamental issue.

Let's start where we always should: with what we believe. I believe this. That no one was born wanting to live their lives on a couch avoiding not just work but the opportunity to make the most of their life – to be a fully rounded citizen and able to make the most of all their talents.  We are born equal – that is with an equal right to make the most of the wonderfully different talents and attributes we have. Some of course got lucky in terms of looks, brains, body or family wealth. But that notion of fundamental equality requires society to intervene to equal out as many life chances as possible.

So when I look into the eyes of another – whether it’s a rich banker or a person in receipt of benefits payments – I don’t really see a ‘greedy pig’ or a ‘skiver’ but a fellow human being.  From that basis a different debate is possible – one that aspires to a much more ambitious sense of the good life and a good society.

We can confine the debate to in-work benefits. We can compare the rich to the poor. We can talk about the lack of jobs. We can compare tax avoidance to benefit fraud. We can point to who the real scroungers are, as Compass, the organisation I chair, did this week. We can ask why highly profitable companies aren’t paying a living wage to the people their profits rely on. All of these things can help. But it won't change the underlying terms of debate. The only thing that will is a different and more humane view of each other and the massive inequalities in income, wealth and power which shape our life chances.

The opinion polls are, of course, in a different place. In harsh economic times people can become harsher in their attitudes.  This is equally the case when they are egged on by George Osborne trying to set the in-work poor against the out-of-work poor as he did in his Autumn Statement.

Some in Labour’s ranks worry about the electoral consequences of the more nuanced approach taken by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. Some fear that it's better to lose the argument but win the election so that at least some assistance can be given to the poor – no matter how little and at a high price  of continually  conceding critical ground. It is an understandable strategy at a rather minimalist level but it eventually and inevitably ends up destroying itself. Over time, there is no point in the Labour Party merely doing the work of the Tories but just at a slightly slower pace. The party will then just hollow out as it forgets what its mission is. And lest we forget, what Labour leaders say and do matters. The British Social Attitudes Survey shows clearly what happens when they stop saying inequality matters – the public no longer think inequality matters and support for social security plummets.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have to take great care with this debate. This is not a new war that can be won in one response to one pre-budget statement. The old war was lost over decades as the rich were heralded for their riches and the poor were blamed for their poverty. We are going to have to finesse our arguments and persevere on this for some time using all sorts of new language, frames and policies. And we are going to have to strike up unlikely alliances – not least with those on the right who still believe in a "one nation" and compassionate conservatism. It may be paternalistic but it at least understands the responsibility of the rich to the poor.

Neither can we leave the debate to those at the top.  Like every other big culture change – like attitudes to race and sexuality – this is a war we have to engage in everyday in our own lives.  What we say and do matters.  We can confront prejudice and fear in the workplace, pub and street. We have to be the change we wish to see in the world.

No one really wants to spend his or her life doing little that is productive. We are only fully human when we are creative. That doesn’t have to be paid work; it can be running a family or running the local community. The economy cannot function without either of those tasks being performed. Some have such serious mental and health problems that society has to support them and we should be proud that we can. Other needs intensive help to rebuild their confidence and ability to live a more fulfilling life. We should give them that help.

This week a line was drawn in the sand. It’s not yet in the right place – but it’s a good start. From here we can and must fight back. The other side win only when we stop fighting – if we don’t stop fighting we cannot lose. 

On a crucial political issue, Ed Miliband refused to follow the right to the right. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”