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Balls's job guarantee is a left-wing idea wrapped in right-wing rhetoric

Labour's 'tough' message risks encouraging the belief that benefit claimants seek to avoid work.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said that Labour would match "rights with responsibilities". Photograph: Getty Images.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls announced plans today for a compulsory jobs guarantee for the long-term unemployed to be funded by reducing tax relief on pension contributions for those earning over £150,000.

Balls details the policy in an article written for PoliticsHome. In the piece he blasts the coalition for labelling "people who want to work" as 'scroungers'; he describes their rhetoric as "divisive, nasty and misleading". But the subtext of much of his own article is also that benefit claimants are a drain on public money, and that their claims are often fraudulent, as shown by the headings of his "three tests" for welfare reform: firstly, "it must pay more to be in work than live on benefits", secondly "we must get tough on the scourge of long-term unemployment by matching rights with responsibilities", and thirdly any welfare reform "must be fair to those who genuinely want to work." Does this language not sound familiar?

Between the headings, Balls makes the nuanced - though rather obvious - point that "the vast majority" of Job Seeker's Allowance claimants "desperately want to find a job". But elsewhere in the piece, the shadow chancellor says that Labour are proposing welfare reform on the grounds that "we won't get the costs of welfare down if adults who can work are languishing on the dole for year".

So is Labour's proposal doing the long-term workless a favour, or is it threatening them? And is Labour a group of reformers masquerading as moderates, or a populist centre party that wants to appear to sympathise with the poor? The policy would suggest the former, the rhetoric the latter.

The latest YouGov poll puts Labour on 43 per cent, compared to 32 per cent for the Conservatives. With the collapse in support for the Lib Dems from left-leaning voters and widespread public anger about cuts and inequality, Labour has the chance to present a real alternative to the coalition's austerity agenda. But in order to win votes it must be seen to be consistent and strong in its message, or it risks appearing ridiculous, as we saw when Ed Milliband refused to get off the fence on union walk-outs in 2011.

In order to harness dissatisfaction, Labour needs to walk the walk, but it also needs to talk the talk. Go on, say it Eds – 'I am left-wing'.