Monday, 8 April 2013

Labour’s response to Philpott is dangerously out of sync with public opinion

For the past 18 months or so I’ve spent quite a bit of time defending Ed Miliband: a decent man with a broad vision about how our political system needs to be changed to work for the many instead of a privileged, sheltered few. I’ve applauded the leadership’s disassociation from the worst excesses of New Labour – its authoritarianism, ruthless attacks on civil liberties, reckless liberal interventionism. He has taken on powerful elites in a way few have dared to.

But over the last few months an immaturity and amateurish streak has taken hold. Beginning with his breathtaking naivety in fully endorsing the Leveson Report in its entirety with barely any time to take in the executive summary, let alone digest all 1,987 pages. Wanting to be on the side of the victims of hacking and new best mate to UK Celebs Are Us, clouded his judgement and put Labour on the wrong side of press freedom. But at least he had public opinion on his side. Even though Leveson and press regulation will barely feature come polling day.
Not so welfare.  As Dan Hodges pointed out this week:

“The “debate” over welfare playing out over the last few days has reminded me of where we were with the debate on immigration a decade ago.
We are in the embryonic stages, meaning hyperbole, misinformation, accusations and counter-accusations shout down the moderate and measured. Mick Philpott, doting father of 17, misogynist, benefit-scrounger extraordinaire, and now guilty of the manslaughter of six of his children puts us firmly in hysteria territory. Vile product of Welfare UK? Of course not. But a man entitled to handouts not far off £50,000 a year according to some reports is evidence of a benefits system intent on self-harm.

There was nothing remotely controversial about George Osborne musing that:
“There is a question for government and for society about the welfare state - and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state - subsidising lifestyles like that, and I think that debate needs to be had."

Every right-thinking person would have been nodding in approval. I certainly was. Then in blunders Ed Balls with the equivalent of a studs-first two-footed tackle:
“George Osborne's calculated decision to use the shocking and vile crimes of Mick Philpott to advance a political argument is the cynical act of a desperate chancellor.”

No, Ed. Osborne’s comments will have struck a chord, even with Labour voters. Especially with Labour voters. Sarah Teather’s contribution bordered on the idiotic when she said that Osborne was seeking to:
“demonise anybody who receives any kind of welfare support."

Again, wrong. The extremity of a case like Philpott milking the system for all it’s worth is exactly the sort of thing that has the public foaming with rage. Its rarity is irrelevant to public anger. Opinion already formed only hardens.
When left wingers (rightly) point out that such abuses are isolated, they are merely preaching to other like-minded souls. Just because something is rare, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of public attention. Policy is often changed or loopholes closed in the face of extreme examples: the Dunblane school shootings and the subsequent law on handguns; the Soham murders and the never-ending growth of the CRB industry. One could reasonably argue that certain anti-terror laws are passed and are wholly disproportionate, all the result of the murderous acts and/or thoughts of a very small number.

Ed Miliband has yet to comment on Philpott, but don’t expect a deviation from his Shadow Chancellor’s script. Welfare, immigration and economic credibility: not so much Labour’s Achilles’ heel as an entire Achilles’ limb. Labour trails the Tories on all three. All three will dominate the election campaign.
Labour has made the right noises on immigration. Miliband shrewdly acknowledges economic impact versus its social and cultural effect. On welfare, all there is is a lot of hot air. See Peter Watt’s piece on these pages earlier in the week.

This is not to say I don’t support the party’s opposition to some of the government’s welfare reforms, such as the bedroom tax. I’m fairly confident that the sight of families or people with disabilities being forced to relocate under the gaze of the media will drive the government into a humiliating retreat.  It’s one thing freezing or cutting benefits.  Not something that can be really captured with the naked eye.  Yet, it’ll be a lot easier to film a man or woman in a wheelchair being led out of their home with all their earthly possessions in tow.  The pictures will look dreadful.
Labour’s job is to provide a solid and serious alternative to bringing down the welfare bill.  Opposing every government effort isn’t the way to do it, even if they are often right in doing so.  Opposition without an alternative is wasted energy.

Wanting to be heard at all costs has led Labour to play politics in accusing Osborne of playing politics this week.  It beggars belief that the party lack the maturity to simply echo Osborne’s sensible comments. Their intervention this week has shown that they offer next to nothing on the welfare debate, even when faced with a grotesque man having a laugh at the nation’s over-generous expense.  Sometimes it’s good to learn that opposition for opposition’s sake just looks desperate.

The best contribution to this week’s event was found in The Times from Tony Blair’s former speechwriter Philip Collins (£):
“By opposing the welfare consequences of austerity with no viable alternative, Labour is asking to be placed on the side of those who want the welfare bill to rise rather than those who want it to fall.

“The absence of a constructive Labour voice from the welfare debate means that the left is associated only with the shrill shriek of opposition”.
This article was first published by Labour Uncut on Monday 8th April 2013

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