So what does a "one nation" welfare policy look like, Ed?

Osborne's benefit cuts will test whether Labour's new doctrine is more than just a slogan.

The mood in the Conservative Party may not have significantly improved as a result of the Autumn Statement but it has stabilised.

None of the problems that the party had before Wednesday – summarised in a sequence of by-election thrashings in recent weeks - have gone away. The news that George Osborne delivered to the House of Commons on Wednesday was unremittingly bad. The economy is expected to have shrunk over the course of this year. Unemployment, which has crept down in recent months, is forecast to rise again in 2013. Growth, when it returns, will be meagre. The Chancellor’s promises that the national finances would be repaired over the course of the current parliament are broken. 

So if Osborne drove the economy into a ditch, why did he appear to step out of the wrecked car on Wednesday with a smile on his face? He won the day in the parliament – no-one in Westminster seriously disputes that. Ed Balls fluffed his lines and never fully recovered his rhetorical poise. An off day doing a tough gig, aggravated by an old speech impediment, say the shadow chancellor’s allies. A fair-and-square defeat engineered by Osborne’s political cunning, say the Tories.

The allocation of points in verbal jousting in the Commons is largely irrelevant beyond that handful of people who have a professional duty to tune in live. MPs’ morale and press opinion are modulated by points scored in the chamber, but not in a way that has a measurable impact on voting intention.

The Tories are pleased with the way the day went because it showed Osborne back on his game after a long slump. Since he is their election strategist as well as the Chancellor, it matters a lot to Conservative MPs if he is judged to be a potent player of political games. Plainly, he still is.

As I wrote on the day, the deadliest political device in the Autumn Statement was the announcement of a Welfare Uprating Bill. This will enshrine in law a limit of 1 per cent to the amount a range of benefits can rise every year for three years (a cut in real-terms). This measure doesn’t require its own signature piece of primary legislation. The only reason for dedicating a tranche of parliamentary time to a single item in the Chancellor’s menu of deficit reduction measures is the intention to skewer Labour over the course of the debates.

The sub-inflation uprating does a lot of fiscal heavy lifting. If Labour opposes it – and it looks certain that in some form they will – multiple challenges ensue. They will need to explain whether they think £2.5bn per year ought to be taken from somewhere (or someone) else. If not, they can be accused of lacking determination to contain the deficit. Then there is the political damage that Osborne thinks can be inflicted by presenting Labour as a party that likes to lavish cash on workless layabouts. Opinion polls show Britain always receptive to that message.

I have written before about the dangers to the Tories of thinking that voters will reward them for flint-heartedness, even if it appears to meet a public appetite. Meanwhile, the Labour leadership is hopeful that the Chancellor has misjudged the impact of his benefit cuts, since a larger proportion of them fall on working families than Osborne ever admits.

In a recent New Statesman interview, Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, set out why and how he thinks welfare can be turned into a vote-winner for Labour rather than an electoral liability. In short, the strategy is to present the Tories as plunderers of the pockets of the very “strivers” on whose behalf they claim to act. That message, Byrne believes, will become all the more potent when the ugly social consequences of poorly targeted cuts start to show.

That appears to be the line of attack that the opposition is taking in response to the Autumn Statement. Labour has some solid data on its side in this argument, but public and tabloid media attitudes will not be turned easily. If it happens it would indicate a significant change in the terms of political debate and a substantial strategic setback for the Tories. The moment when a big, headline-grabbing welfare cut stops being perceived by a majority of voters as necessary and starts looking plain vindictive is probably the point at which the Conservatives’ moral authority to run the country at a time of austerity is irrecoverably lost. Osborne clearly believes he can swing the axe pretty hard without crossing that compassion threshold.

Navigating this debate will be the first proper test of Ed Miliband’s "one nation" philosophy. This new defining creed for the Labour Party was revealed to approving reviews in the leader’s annual conference speech in October but hasn’t been much developed since. It has, like past slogans, been crow-barred into press releases, massaged into speeches and dangled from parliamentary questions. It isn’t yet identified with a set of ideas or the beginnings of a policy platform.

This makes senior Labour people nervous. Although the idea is only a couple of months old there is already fear that one-nation will get stuck on the page and not evolve into a practical project that expresses the party’s position on key issues - such as welfare reform.

So what might a one-nation response to the coalition’s plan to raise benefits by 1 per cent annually look like? If I understood Miliband’s conference speech correctly, especially the passages on post-war reconstruction as the guiding spirit for Britain’s recovery from financial crisis, I imagine the basis of his welfare policy would be an attempt to restore legitimacy to the very idea of social security with a patriotic appeal to solidarity in a time of economic emergency.

It would probably start with a steely denunciation of coalition policy as a cynical device to turn different groups of British people against each other in a brutal competition for limited budget resources. It would decry the language that Osborne uses to promote his welfare cuts as dishonest, since he pretends that only the workless are affected, and dishonourable, since he assumes that those without jobs are choosing "a life on benefits," when the majority are victims of an economic calamity that deprives them of the opportunity to work.

It would point out that, in reality, those out of work who depend on benefits, those in work who depend on benefits and those who receive no benefits at all but feel short of cash are not in some zero-sum-game race. It would assert instead that they are in a common economic and social endeavour. They are one nation with a collective interest in maintaining a functional welfare safety net. Funding social security would then be cast as a positive choice Britain makes because it is civilised country that does not casually tolerate children going hungry and homeless.

Having established those moral imperatives and, thereby, having reassured the wing of the Labour Party that has waited years for a leader to say such things with authentic passion, this hypothetical one-nation policy doctrine would move onto the subject of responsibility and affordability. It would point out that free-riding – the acceptance of benefits without contribution or commitment to work – betrays the spirit of solidarity just as does the refusal to provide for those desperately in need. It would accept the prospect that centralised, state-administered handouts might not be the most effective way to resolve stubborn social problems, nor the most cost-efficient. It would point out that the re-legitimisation of social security can only happen when the recipients feel some involvement in the decisions being made about their future and when those who pay for it all believe everything possible is being done to maximise the social return on their investment.

That would mean embracing the power of innovation – looking at new ways to help the jobless into work and experimenting to see which incentives are most effective. It would not, for example, reject out of hand the Work Programme – the government’s project to use private companies, social enterprises and charities as alternative providers of welfare-to-work support (although it would reasonably attack the implementation and design of the existing scheme).

In short, a one-nation welfare policy would shamelessly steal David Cameron’s "big society" rhetoric. It would assert a higher moral authority to make the idea work on the grounds that Labour can be trusted to reshape state provision without ulterior ideological motives. It would claim that Labour is the real big society party, not because deep down it sees state spending as a form of wickedness that infantilises citizens and suffocates enterprise but because it recognises that public services can be made more effective and popular by modernisation and innovation – which means importing new ideas from outside the closed shop. Because Labour intrinsically believes in a public sector ethos it has the authority to negotiate a grand bargain with the private sector to deliver services in a way that honours that ethos.

As I’ve argued before, the way Labour will achieve credibility on the deficit is not by simply declaring itself willing in theory to make cuts and not in practice saying which ones. Fiscal prudence can be signalled more profoundly by Labour proving it is sincerely interested in new, practical ways to get more for less out of public services.

I have no idea if this busked meander around an imaginary one-nation welfare line would work. It might just alienate everyone – the left would denounce the call for reform as a Blairite revanche; the right would see the appeal to solidarity as crypto-Bolshevism. It would, at least, mark a significant divergence from the established tone of political debate. It would also signal a refusal to fight the battles ahead on Osborne’s terms.

The confidence that there are no other terms is the real reason why the Chancellor and his allies have come away from the Autumn Statement feeling discreetly rather pleased with themselves. Perhaps they are right. But if there is another way of looking at the political challenge facing the country – a more optimistic, imaginative one that appeals to voters' better instincts and not their basest fears – Miliband rather urgently needs to say what it is. He needs Ed Balls to sign up to it. And they both need to express it in some manner other than the lifeless subject heading on yet another one-nation email from the Labour Party press office.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall on 5 November in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war