Our welfare system is broken, but Labour and the Tories just trade myths

Rather than arguing about policy and practice, both parties encourage a futile debate about motivation and motive.

The first half of this parliamentary term was dominated by an economic argument that, in political terms, Labour lost. That doesn’t mean the Ed Balls's position on the deficit and debt has necessarily been the wrong one. Learned economists share the shadow chancellor’s analysis that premature austerity risks suffocating growth. Balls warned there would be a double-dip recession and there was.

But there has not been much reward for that foresight. Opinion polls show voters still inclined to accept the coalition’s explanations for missed fiscal targets and unscheduled stagnation – a derelict Labour legacy and turbulence washing in from the rest of Europe. The Tories act as if economic misfortune is a force of nature visited upon them rather than the product of their own policy misjudgement. Labour, meanwhile, are marooned between the forward-facing argument about who is best equipped to navigate through the storm and the backward-facing one about whether the storm might have been avoided.

Much of the economic argument in Westminster over the past two years has been predicated on mutually sustaining myths, one Labour and one Conservative. I mean "myth" not as in a malicious falsehood but in the sense of a moral parable that might be rooted in real world observation but whose real purpose is to galvanise tribal faith.

The Tory one is that the only feasible fiscal path immediately after the last election was the one laid out in George Osborne’s "emergency Budget" of June 2010. Any alternative, goes the story, would have led to "Greek-style" catastrophe, a flight of international investors from UK bonds, meltdown, apocalypse.

This was never true. Markets wanted certainty that there would be some determination to address the UK’s fiscal problems. But demonstration of will was what mattered, not acceleration of the austerity timetable. Osborne could have entered the Treasury and promised with the requisite level of portentous ceremony to implement Alastair Darling’s pre-election budget plans. The sky would not have fallen in.

The new Chancellor took a more aggressive path for two political reasons. First, he hoped to cast Labour as the party of reckless profligacy. Second, he wanted to get budget consolidation out of the way faster so as to fight a cash giveaway election in 2015. The first part of the plan worked; the second didn’t.

The Labour myth is that Osborne’s political gamble entirely explains why recovery turned to recession and why there is misery in Britain today. The implication in Balls’s "too far too fast" line is that somewhere in the gap between Darling’s proposed deficit reduction timetable and the one Osborne tried (and failed) to implement, was enough cash stimulus to pump vigour into the economy. There wasn’t. Darling envisaged austerity-lite; it still would have looked and tasted like austerity. It still would have hurt. It is entirely possible that the gentler gradient on Darling’s graph would have made all the difference to growth prospects but, come 2015, that will be an academic hypothesis to exercise economics students. It is not the kind of argument that persuades swing voters.

Now that the Osborne timetable is in tatters, Labour and the Tories are not as far apart on the economy as they seem. Balls has explicitly acknowledged the need for fiscal constraint and Osborne has accepted that austerity alone cannot restore growth to the economy and that investment must be brought forward. Labour are reluctant deficit hawks; the Tories are timid dabblers in Keynesian stimulus. It would be silly to suggest that there is some secret consensus emerging but it has also suited the Chancellor and his shadow to depict each other at polar extremes of an ideological spectrum when in fact they don’t. It has suited public enlightenment and intelligent debate less.

And now, with the forthcoming battle over welfare cuts, a similar pattern is emerging. The second half of the parliament will be dominated by more mythological warfare, this time over the benefits bill.

The Tory myth is that Labour is only interested in handing out money for people to sit around doing nothing; that there is no willingness to reform the welfare system. This is a subset of the fiction that Balls doesn’t intend to reduce the deficit. As senior Labour figures point out whenever they are given the opportunity, the party wants to reduce spending on out-of-work benefits and is unafraid to impose sanctions on those who refuse to take jobs when offered. That was Labour policy by the end of the last government and it is Labour policy now. (How popular it is with the party grass roots is another matter entirely.)

The Labour myth is that Conservatives are motivated entirely by the cynical urge to confiscate money from the poor and that, in cahoots with tabloid newspapers, they wilfully vilify those in receipt on benefits. That ignores the possibility that some Tories might sincerely believe that the welfare system they inherited was riddled with hypocrisies and injustices. They might believe it because it is true. It was ridiculous to funnel taxpayers' money into the pockets of rogue landlords through an unchecked housing benefit budget and it was dishonest, unfair and financially reckless to use incapacity benefit as a cash anaesthetic for people who might have been able to work if given the right training and incentives – positive and negative. (Those observations do not cease to be true just because there are greater injustices in the world and worse policy errors that should command more media/political attention.)

The welfare system is broken, not irredeemably but quite substantially. Labour knew it in office. The Tories know it now. The interesting question is what interventions are most effective in doing something about it. What works in terms of affordability and delivery of a just outcome? How should incentives be calibrated for different labour market conditions? That is not the debate we are likely to have over the next two years.

Instead we will have ever more desperate attempts by each side to force their opponents into the mythological template. Some on the Labour side will unintentionally help the Tories by denying that there is such a thing as cultural dependency on welfare and pretending that the only problem with the system is its lack of largesse. Some on the Tory side will help Labour by spraying indiscriminate spite at anyone who happens to be in receipt of state help and by appearing unmoved by the plight of Britain’s poor.

Everyone will be in favour of reform. But Labour will struggle to persuade the public that they have the courage to see it through and the Tories will struggle to convince anyone that they are compassionate enough to do it right. The argument will be about motivation and motive instead of policy and practice.

An important difference between this argument and the economic one that dominated the first half of the parliament is that the coalition parties have already spent much of their political capital. Osborne stole a march on Labour in June 2010. The Chancellor had the benefit of the doubt on his side - and the then still trusted Lib Dems cheerleading for him. The opposition was  reeling from defeat and only embarking on the process of electing a new leader. Now Ed Miliband leads a united party and has more political combat experience under his belt. 

It is, of course, quite possible for both sides to lose this argument. Labour could fail to shake off a reputation for throwing public money at people who are judged not to deserve it; the Tories could thoroughly restore their status as the party that sneers in the face of social destitution. How do we implement a social security system that provides for those in need, supports people out of work in their hunt for a job, doesn’t create perverse incentives to depend on the state for life, rewards enterprise, doesn’t stigmatise disadvantage, is fair and compassionate while also financially sustainable? To find the answer, look away from British politics now.

Goal posts stand in a children's park in the Gorton area of Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.