Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Photo: Getty
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The government is tripping up on welfare – a blessing and a curse for Labour

A slew of welfare stories this morning suggests the coalition is stumbling over its biggest bugbear: the benefits bill. Labour should play this carefully – in economic, not social, terms.

First, to untangle the welfare spending stories this morning:

  • Some leaked government memos show that the Department for Work and Pensions may be in danger of spending beyond the government’s self-imposed welfare spending cap. This is mainly due, according to civil servants, to rising claims of the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which was introduced in 2008 to replace the Incapacity Benefit.

    If the limit (£119.5bn) is breached, DWP ministers will have to answer to parliament and ask MPs to approve the additional cost, which the documents show it is “vulnerable” to having to spend.
     

  • Unfortunately for Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, this leak comes on the day he’s announcing his new welfare scheme of Universal Credit will be rolled out to 90 jobcentres in northwest England. This process should get underway next week. Implementing this new system has been a notoriously haphazard and slow process, and the new plans for the northwest will do more for furthering the discussion about government incompetence than celebrating a supposedly more efficient state.
     
  • In another blow to the government’s welfare record, Westminster’s favourite inquisitor Margaret Hodge MP and her crack team on the Public Accounts Committee have reported that changes to disability benefits have caused a “fiasco” for sick and disabled people. The committee calls the reforms, in the form of the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – eligibility for which is assessed by the infamous Atos fit-to-work tests – a “rushed” change, which has had a “shocking” impact on claimants.
     

This is bad for the government. Its benefit reforms and spending cap are intended to toughen its stance on welfare, a path popular with voters, yet this clumsiness certainly doesn’t foster the tough, lean image it’s attempting to present.

However, it is up to the Labour Party to play this correctly so that the government doesn’t get away with smothering negative stories with fresh Universal Credit rollouts and condemnation of their "soft" opposition.

Having announced his own proposed changes to benefits yesterday, Ed Miliband is clearly trying to display a viable plan for the welfare state to complement our age of austerity. Essentially, he’s doing Labour’s version of being “tough on welfare”. So it can’t just be the same attacks on the government, as the PAC has voiced, using "shocking" personal stories of claimants, and accusing ministers of not caring for our most vulnerable. Instead, the message must be a condemnation of its vulnerability to over-spending taxpayers’ money. A purely economic, and arguably more rightwing, position than Miliband has yet been quite ready to adopt.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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How Labour risks becoming a party without a country

Without establishing the role of Labour in modern Britain, the party is unlikely ever to govern again.

“In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home”

- Blind Willie Johnson

The Conservative Party is preparing itself for a bloody civil war. Conservative MPs will tell anyone who wants to know (Labour MPs and journalists included) that there are 100 Conservative MPs sitting on letters calling for a leadership contest. When? Whenever they want to. This impending war has many reasons: ancient feuds, bad blood, personal spite and enmity, thwarted ambition, and of course, the European Union.

Fundamentally, at the heart of the Tory war over the European Union is the vexed question of ‘What is Britain’s place in the World?’ That this question remains unanswered a quarter of a century after it first decimated the Conservative Party is not a sign that the Party is incapable of answering the question, but that it has no settled view on what the correct answer should be.

The war persists because the truth is that there is no compromise solution. The two competing answers are binary opposites: internationalist or insular nationalist, co-habitation is an impossibility.

The Tories, in any event, are prepared to keep on asking this question, seemingly to the point of destruction. For the most part, Labour has answered this question: Britain will succeed as an outward looking, internationalist state. The equally important question facing the Labour Party is ‘What is the place of the Labour Party in modern Britain?’ Without answering this question, Labour is unlikely to govern ever again and in contrast to the Tories, Labour has so far refused to acknowledge that such a question is being asked of it by the people it was founded to serve. At its heart, this is a question about England and the rapidly changing nature of the United Kingdom.

In the wake of the 2016 elections, the approach that Labour needs to take with regard to the ‘English question’ is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the United Kingdom) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and UKIP, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020.

In a new book published this week, Labour’s Identity Crisis, Tristram Hunt has brought together Labour MPs, activists and parliamentary candidates from the 2015 general election to explore the challenges facing Labour in England and how the party should address these, not purely as an electoral device, but as a matter of principle.

My contribution to the book was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The track list reads like the score for a musical tragedy based upon the Labour Party from 2010 onwards: In My Time of Dying, Trampled Underfoot, Sick Again, Ten Years Gone. 

Continued Labour introspection is increasingly tiresome for the political commentariat – even boring – and Labour’s Identity Crisis is a genuinely exciting attempt to swinge through this inertia. As well as exploring our most recent failure, the book attempts to chart the course towards the next Labour victory: political cartography at its most urgent.

This collection of essays represents an overdue effort to answer the question that the Party has sought to sidestep for too long.  In the run up to 2020, as the United Kingdom continues to atomise, the Labour Party must have an ambitious, compelling vision for England, or else risks becoming a party without a country.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.