The coalition shouldn't assume that there is no limit to public support for welfare cuts

With the government viewed as out of touch with families on low incomes, the mood could yet turn against austerity.

The government could be making a serious political blunder if it believes that talking tough on 'welfare' is enough for people to be persuaded that it’s "on the side of hardworking people". 

Hot on the heels of news from the latest British Social Attitudes survey that there has been a significant fall in the number of people who believe benefit payments are too high, the Child Poverty Action Group is today publishing YouGov polling showing that the vast majority of the public believe the government is out of touch with families on low incomes and middle incomes.

Despite some of the harshest political rhetoric for years, widely seen as aimed at pitting the hard-pressed ('strivers') against benefit claimants ('skivers'), nearly seven in ten (69%) people think the coalition government does not understand the concerns of people on low incomes. This view is strongly supported by voters of all the main parties in the 2010 election, raising important questions about the limits of public support for the coalition’s cuts to social security. 

Today, the Child Poverty Action Group is launching a campaign asking politicians – of all parties – to forget the stereotypes and remember that benefit claimants are 'People Like Us'.

As part of this, we’re inviting party leaders to watch a film we’re releasing of three ordinary people receiving benefits talking about their concerns. It cannot be right that debates on the reform of the social security system - a major public service after all - have become obse ssed with misleading stereotypes, which have crowded out the reality of who really claims benefits and why they need this support.

It’s only from listening to the experiences of ordinary people that we can have a sensible debate and policies that promote jobs, tackle low pay, promote affordable housing and childcare and help families with the added costs of children. Policies that people want and need.

One of the truths that is regularly obscured by the myths and stereotypes is that the vast majority of claimants have worked, and will work again. If politicians are genuine about getting on side with 'hardworking people' they should talk more about strengthening social security, or the security of family finances, and put a stop to beating up on social security claimants.

Demonstrators hold placards protest against the bedroom tax outside the High Court on 15 May 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

Getty Images,
Show Hide image

John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.