Labour’s ambivalence

The Labour Party intends to oppose the government’s proposal to cut the real value of benefits, and argues that long-term unemployed people should be offered jobs. This might look like a defence of the benefit system, but Labour is not offering one yet – they know that benefits are unpopular, and their support for the principles is halfhearted at best. Ed Balls is not proposing job creation so much as he is proposing compulsion. He says:

  • “it must pay more to be in work than live on benefits, both for the individual and the Exchequer”;
  • “we must get tough on the scourge of long-term unemployment by matching rights with responsibilities”;
  • “any welfare reforms must be fair to those who are in work or genuinely want to work.”

The first principle has been part of the litany of British politics since the days of the Poor Law. The argument that everyone who is unemployed, wherever they are and whatever their circumstances, must get less than everyone in work, comes from the principle of ‘less eligibility’. The complaint that people are “better off on the dole”, typically on £71 a week, is a convenient excuse to cut benefits. It is not for the benefits system to pay less, it is for the labour market to pay more. We need a living wage.

The second point suggests that long-term unemployment is the responsibility of the long term unemployed person. If unemployment was a choice, some people would be staying unemployed indefinitely; they’re not. The numbers of people continuously long-tem unemployed are tiny (I’ve cited the DWP figures previously).

The third point is that benefits have to be fair “to those in work”. That does not mean, of course, that people who are in work should be protected in the circumstances when they fall out of work – which is what would be fair; it means that poor people should suffer for not working. The judgmental language of strivers and shirkers is repugnant, and it should be avoided. Balls condemns, rightly, “divisive, nasty and misleading smears”. A shame, then, that he has also chosen to emphasise that “we must come down hard on the minority who try to cheat the system – whether that’s through benefit fraud, tax evasion, or simply by drawing jobseekers’ allowance while never seeking a job.”

Behind this position, there is another central misconception that blights both Conservative and Labour policies on benefits. Social security is not mainly about employment or work at all. Two thirds of benefits go to people over working age. Most of the rest goes to people who are getting benefits for reasons beyond unemployment – such as disability, housing costs, low wages and child care. And the surprisingly limited element that goes to protect people who are unemployed is, in the vast majority of cases, delivered for a relatively short time. When governments limit the protection extended to people without work, they’re undermining the rights of citizens. It’s about you and me.

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