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 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'.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said that Labour would match "rights with responsibilities". Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.