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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.

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

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.