An open letter to Rachel Reeves: being "tough" on welfare won't work for Labour

Rather than trying to outflank the Tories, the party needs to think harder about how to create a greater sense of collective identity and solidarity.

Dear Rachel Reeves,

As the new shadow secretary for work and pensions, you are now the face of Labour's policies on social security and benefits, and will likely stay there until the 2015 election. So you have a unique opportunity to rethink the failed approach of the past and offer voters something bolder at the next election.

The conventional wisdom within Labour is that the party is seen as 'soft' on people who claim social security and too forgiving of people who abuse the system. You will know that poorer people are usually harsher towards others on benefits and want tough sanctions on abusers of the system. You will have seen polling that suggests Labour needs to neutralise that image or else people may be tempted to vote for the Conservatives in 2015. Hence you wanted to sound tough in your interview with the Observer on Sunday.

This is a safe approach and has been part of Labour's vocabulary since Tony Blair said he was "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". It has also stopped working; all the evidence shows it just takes Labour further into a cul-de-sac without a way out. Here's why:

1) It stopped working for New Labour
You couldn't accuse the last Labour government of being soft on people on welfare benefits. Successive ministers were trotted out repeatedly to deliver harsh language on "scroungers" and "fraudsters" who ripped off the system. Labour even unveiled billboard ads calling on people to report benefit fraudsters. And yet, a 2010 poll found that 66% of people thought Labour "was close to" benefit claimants. If being 'tough' on claimants is a good strategy, why didn't it work for New Labour?

Last week the American cognitive linguist and writer George Lakoff (the author of Don't Think of an Elephant) toured London and made a point that some campaigners have been making here for years: adopting your political opponent's language doesn't neutralise your disadvantage, it cements their advantage as the centre of gravity shifts in their direction (just ask your colleague Stella Creasy, she was there too). New Labour helped create a harsher climate for people on social security without reaping any political benefits, despite silly gimmicks such as lie-detector tests.

Most people don't pay attention to policy details. Labour would have to do something very drastic, perhaps beheading a welfare claimant live on TV, to cut through to voters and convince them that it is 'tough'. Otherwise they just think you're pandering for votes and dislike you even more.

2) Look at immigration as a warning sign
New Labour adopted the same strategy on the issue of immigration. Phil Woolas was regularly wheeled out to deliver sanctions and he didn't mince his words. The Conservatives didn't give Labour any breathing space of course - they shifted even further to the right and kept attacking Labour. Once again there was no political benefit for Labour. In fact, it created a monster for the Tories, as they now face public disillusionment over their absurd promises.

As in the case of social security, by feeding a war of words on immigration, New Labour ended up alienating some of its own voters while convincing almost no one. Even uber-Blairite John McTernan admitted this failure. Reports show that tough rhetoric only shifts attitudes even further away from where Labour needs them to be. As Emma Burnell recently pointed out, "If all we intend to do is ape the Tories in a macho punishment contest we will fail. Because the public refuse to see us like that however hard we tried."

3) Labour should appeal to voters but think broader
How about this for a message: "Labour is absolutely committed to reducing the welfare bill, but without the divisive and demonising language of the Tories. To do that we need to get people into well-paying jobs, and Labour will offer not just a jobs guarantee to the long-term unemployed, but refocus our economy to create better jobs. That is about creating a different kind of an economy that isn't reliant on property bubbles and the City, and one where we pay vastly less on housing benefit and unemployment." Tough on the costs of social security without the demonisation.

But there is a broader problem here. Britons are less appreciative of some welfare payments because our society has become more individualistic and atomised, with a breakdown of traditional social links with neighbours. Labour has to think harder about how to increase a sense of collective identity and solidarity within Britain if it wants to preserve the welfare state. We have to reverse government policies that increase loneliness and kill communities.

As Labour's policy review co-ordinator Jon Cruddas once said : "An ex minister wrote last week of how we needed to 'crack down on the welfare underclass'. Others argue for us to become the 'anti immigration party'. A new kiss up, kick down politics that blames the victim. There lies political death for labour. No language, no warmth no kindness; no generosity, vitality nor optimism. No compassion. If you seek to outflank the coalition from the right, you will turn Labour into a byword for intolerance."

This talk of Labour 'walking into a welfare trap' set by the Tories has itself become a problem: we keep returning to the safe ground of 'tough' rhetoric, without convincing messages or policies that favour Labour in the long term. It is time to bring some fresh thinking to this debate and I hope you won't shy away from doing so.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves.

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.