Miliband's lost welfare intervention

Everyone waited for the Labour leader to say something on welfare. He did but (for obvious reasons) no one noticed.

A colossal news event doesn’t just obliterate other items from the news agenda, it seems to cast them back in time. The arguments about welfare reform that raged last week  – aggravated by George Osborne’s decision to link the case of Mick Philpott, a convicted child killer who happens also to have received benefits, to the more general moral failings of the social security system - seem to have been pushed deeper into the past by the sheer volume of coverage of Margaret Thatcher's death.

The Labour Party was collectively outraged, denouncing the Chancellor’s intervention as callous and cynical. The Tories were generally glad of another opportunity to depict the opposition as hopelessly wedded to defending a profligate system that permits indolence up to the point of breeding depravity. Something approximating a Westminster consensus formed by the end of the week that Labour came off worse from the scrap (although no one in their right mind could have judged it an edifying combat). That is partly because Ed Miliband was away on holiday. Without an intervention from the leader the party’s response looked inevitably diminished. The announcement, in Sunday’s Observer, of a "new" approach to welfare that would recognize more the value of claimants’ past contributions through work, was treated dismissively as a reactive panic, although Liam Byrne, shadow work and pensions secretary, has been kicking around the idea for months.

While some MPs on the right of Labour, mindful of public contempt for the party’s supposed record of unchecked welfare spending, fretted squeamishly that by kicking back at the Tories they were marching into another Osborne trap. Meanwhile, many on the left were in despair that seemed unable to muster sufficient moral outrage to defend those – in work and out of it - who rely on state support just to get by and who are implicitly branded as corrupt layabouts by government rhetoric.

Miliband was convicted by all sides in absentia. So it might be expected that, on his return from holiday, the Labour leader would make a clear and explicit statement of his position on the subject. As it happens, he did. I was travelling with Miliband as he launched his party’s local election campaign yesterday. (Yes, I was there when the news of Thatcher’s death came in but you’ll have to wait a bit longer to read about that.) Campaigning was abandoned and not much, if anything, that happened in politics earlier in the day was noticed.

It is worth disinterring Miliband’s welfare comments, made to a live audience in Ipswich during an unscripted question and answer session. Naturally, what he said won’t satisfy everyone but it is a clearer statement of the official position than anything that emerged last week, a relatively substantial intervention and probably worth quoting in full. So here it is:

“The starting point is we need a welfare system that works. We are very clear about what welfare reform means. Welfare reform means that we should get the 155,000 people who have been unemployed over two years over the age of 25 back to work. Labour is the only party in this country that says we're actually going to do that. We're going to offer them jobs and say you've got a responsibly to take it.

"We think we've got to get the 77,000 young people who have been unemployed for more than a year, back to work. Labour is the only party who says we're actually going to do that by putting them back to work. Do you know what? Those numbers are going up and up under this government because of their economic failure. That's where you start.

"Secondly, you've got to make work pay. You don't make work pay but cutting taxes for millionaires and cutting tax credits at the same time so you've got to make sure that tax credits are there for people to make work pay.

"Thirdly, contribution does matter. I've said in the past that when it comes to housing, if you are working and playing a part in your community, you should get extra points. In terms of the housing list, that is the right thing to do. That is what welfare reform looks like to me.

"Here's the problem with this government, they are not just heartless they are hopeless too. Because actually their welfare reform doesn't work. They say they want to make work pay - Mr Osborne was repeating this on Tuesday . What he doesn’t admit is that his strivers tax that is coming in today - the limit to 1% of the increase in social security payments - is hitting precisely the people he says he wants to help: the people on tax credits and others.

"They’re hopeless too because their bedroom tax is not just cruel and unfair but actually is going to force people into the private sector, which will cost more. And universal credit it in chaos.

"But now we come to the wider issue. Because there are two different views you can take on this: do you try and unite your country and bring it together or do you exploit tragedies? Like the Philpott tragedy. And the right place for Mr Philpot is behind bars. But do you exploit the deaths of six children to try and make a political point about the welfare system? And at the same time say to people actually this is somehow a commentary about so many people on benefits. Of course there is a minority of people on benefits who should be working and aren’t. Labour’s the party that’s going to get them back to work. But what I’m not going to do is engage in nasty, divisive politics.

“I have got a very clear message for the British people on this: we can either succeed as a country by uniting, by using the talents of everybody, by using the talents of everybody out of work, by putting them back into work and making sure there is real responsibility. Or you can say let's divide, let’s set one group of people against another - that’s not how we won the Second World War, that’s not how we succeeded as a country after the Second World War. Now if people want that nasty divisive politics they can have it from the Conservative Party, they’re not going to get it from me. I’m a unifier, not a divider.

"That is what One Nation Conservatives used to believe. And frankly, you know what, I think One Nation Conservatives will be turning in their grave at what’s happened to today’s Conservative Party. They would be ashamed of what’s happened to this Conservative party. Because they have made a political decision, it’s not about the national interest, it’s a political decision to divide this country. Well I’m not having it. I’m not doing it. That’s not my politics."

 

Miliband said that "One Nation Conservatives will be turning in their grave at what’s happened to today’s Conservative Party". 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