Labour tries to avoid falling into Osborne's welfare trap

Balls signals that he is willing to support the Chancellor's new curbs on claimants, including a seven-day wait for benefits.

Every time that George Osborne announces new restrictions on benefits it has as much to do with tripping up Labour as it does with saving money. Aware of how much support the party's perceived softness on claimants cost it in 2010, he aims to paint it as "the welfare party". 

Having opposed most of the £18bn of cuts previously announced by the coalition, it is a trap Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are now keen to avoid. After Osborne announced in the Budget that he would unveil plans to cap Annually Managed Expenditure (AME) in the Spending Review, (the area of public spending that includes volatile and demand-led items such as welfare, debt interest and EU contributions), Labour pre-empted him by outlining its own cap on "structural" welfare spending and announced that it would remove Winter Fuel Payments from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners, a (rather successful) attempt to redirect attention on to the main driver of higher social spending: an ageing population. 

In today's review, Osborne announced a series of tougher rules for claimants, including a seven-day wait before they can claim benefits, a duty to learn English (with benefits docked if they fail to attend language classes), the introduction of weekly, rather than fortnightly, visits to the jobcentre for half of all jobseekers, a requirement for all single parents of children aged three or over to prepare for work and a duty for individuals to prepare a CV and register for an online job search before they can receive benefits. 

In response, it was notable that Balls avoided opposing any of the measures outright. He told BBC News: 

We need to look at the detail, obviously. On the welfare things, English language for incoming migrants - definitely. For the seven-day - is it going to be a blank cheque for Wonga? Let's look at the detail. If it saves money and it works, fine.

So, while expressing some scepticism, Balls has essentially accepted the principle of a seven-day wait for benefits provided that it "saves money" (it will, but at a terrible cost to claimants forced to turn to foodbanks) and that it "works" (again, based on Osborne's definition, it will). Nor, the party signalled, will it oppose the requirement for single parents to look for work. 

In his statement, Osborne also served notice of the biggest welfare trap of all. He announced that his new cap on total benefit spending would be set in next year's Budget and would apply from April 2015. Expect him to adopt the toughest limit possible and then challenge Labour to match it. Should it do so, it will be accused of signing up to an unconscionable attack on the poorest. Should it not, it will be accused of failing to control runaway spending. Having signalled that it will not borrow more to reverse cuts to current spending (only to invest in capital projects such as housing), any difference will need to be funded through tax rises. 

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser