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

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide