The newest right-wing party: This Gary Baker cartoon appeared after Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ speech last year, but let’s adopt it to illustrate the fact that successive Labour leaders, from Blair to Brown to Miliband, have steered the party ever-further away from its support base until, with Miliband’s speech this week, it has become a pale shadow of the Conservative Party it claims to oppose, leaving the majority of the UK’s population with nobody to speak for them.
Yesterday I wrote that Ed Miliband’s speech on social security reform was the beginning of the Conservative victory in 2015 – and picked up a little criticism for it in some areas. I stand by my words.
Ed’s speech proved he is not a leader but a follower. He has agreed to follow Conservative spending cuts and not reverse them. He has agreed to follow Tory spending plans for the first year after a Labour government takes office (if it does) in 2015. He has said he would cap social security spending, formally adopting as policy an idea the Tories floated during the March budget. He has agreed to give up the principle of universal benefits.
He has done this when the Conservatives have no argument whatsoever that can possibly justify what they are doing.
All the Tory claims about austerity have blown away in the wind – hot air to disguise their real aim of shrinking the state and selling off the family silver to their rich friends.
Iain Duncan Smith is to face a grilling by Parliament’s Work and Pensions committee over his – and his colleagues – persistent misrepresentation of the facts about unemployment, sickness and disability and the people claiming benefits on these grounds.
As for the benefit cap, Miliband said an independent body should advise government on how best to design it. Great! Can I sit on this body? I could do with the cash!
Or is it another example of fake jobs for the boys to get their snouts in the trough?
The system needs to change, because the Conservatives/Coalition have cocked it up. Miliband offered up more of the same, with a little bit of tinkering around the edges. Red Conservative.
For a party that’s supposed to be the official Opposition to the government, there was a hell of a lot of Tory talk in Miliband’s speech, like this: “It is only by reforming social security with the right values that we’ll be able to control costs.” Tory values?
“We have always been against the denial of opportunity that comes from not having work. And against the denial of responsibility by those who could work and don’t do so,” he accused, in one of those confusing single-sentences-split-into-two that make his speeches so utterly unreadable. But he needs to get his facts right. The number of people who could work but don’t do so is around 2.5 million – but that’s because there isn’t any work available for them. One job for every five people, although we have witnessed moments when adverts for a handful of places at a single shop have attracted thousands of applications. These people aren’t denying responsibility, Ed – they’re desperate for a chance.
He was referring to benefit fraud, though, wasn’t he? Benefit fraud is the bogeyman that haunts much of Iain Duncan Smith’s policy, even though it is, as the facts show, a ghost. In fact, 99.3 per cent of all benefit claims are genuine and are made out of real need – according to government figures – and that figure rises to 99.6 per cent in sickness and disability cases. It’s not a perfect situation but any system will have its abusers, and that’s why we have fraud detection built into it. Benefit fraud is not a huge problem, and Miliband does himself and his party enormous harm by adopting the Tory line and alienating the genuinely sick and disabled people who have been fighting the unjust removal of their benefits by a system he seems unlikely to reform, for all his weasel words.
He returns to this theme later: “Just as there is a minority who should be working and don’t want to, there is a majority who are desperate for work and can’t find it.” Evil, divisive, Tory rhetoric. Isn’t this the man who wants a ‘One Nation’ government? Why is he trying to split us up and set us against each other? That’s Tory policy.
Have some more of the same: “I want to teach my kids that it is wrong to be idle on benefits, when you can work” – implying that people – many people – are in just that position. Tory divisiveness from a Labour leader.
Here’s another: “It appears that some people get something for nothing and other people get nothing for something – no reward for the years of contribution they make.” This one really got my goat because it turns the principle of the Welfare State on their head.
For goodness’ sake, it isn’t about paying in money in order to get exactly the same amount back another time. It’s about contributing to the welfare of the state as a whole, including everyone in it. A Labour leader should be making the argument that this is not about selfishness; if you’re a part of this nation, you contribute to its well-being. “From each according to [their] ability, to each according to [their] needs,” as Marx put it. His philosophy may be out of fashion with the ‘Me, me, me’ generation but that doesn’t make those words any less relevant to the funding of a national economy.
I wonder whether quoting Bob Crow from last night’s This Week programme will actually make the message any easier to hear, but I’ll give it a go. He said: “It’s the strong helping the weak – that’s what the whole welfare benefits system is based on.”
“We have to tackle this too,” bleated Miliband. Yes, we do – by correcting the wrong attitude, whenever we hear someone spouting it. So get a clue, Ed.
There are dire portents for the future “laser-focusing” of a Labour government’s spending, as well.
Look at his ideas about attempts to get people into work. He said: “This government’s work programme can leave people… unemployed year after year after year,” leading one to believe that he’ll ditch the work programme and its useless money-grubbing private, for-profit ‘provider’ firms that have been leeching millions from us for years. Official figures have proved they are worse than useless.
Alas no. He went on to voice his support for the grievously damaging Atos-run assessment regime for Employment and Support Allowance, claiming that this backdoor genocide policy “was the right thing to do. We continue to support tests” that kill 73 people per week, on average, according to official figures last year.
His problem with the Atos test was that it should be focused on helping to identify “the real skills of each disabled person and the opportunities they could take up” – completely missing the point about disability. Of course people who are off work with illness have skills, but they cannot use those skills because they are ill! It doesn’t take a genius to work out the sticking-point so he must be intentionally avoiding it.
And then, the killing blow: “So these tests should be connected to a work programme that itself is tested on its ability to get disabled people jobs that work for them.” He would re-employ the useless and wasteful ‘work programme provider’ firms, putting the final seal of hopelessness on the lives of people who thought they could rely on him for help.
Perhaps the worst betrayal in this whole sorry mess – and I’ve only scratched the surface here – is the fact that Miliband and Labour had the front to claim they were making tough decisions. There’s nothing tough about copying the hated policies of a hated and failed administration. There’s nothing tough about allowing their private-interest friends to continue bleeding the state of its cash, and there’s nothing tough about opening up more opportunities for them to strip us of whatever we have left.
Miliband and his team have proved they cannot take the tough decisions; that they are followers and not leaders. If they can’t – or won’t – step up and meet the challenge of our times – starting with a retraction and apology for yesterday’s speech – then they should make way for somebody who will.
And they should do it now, while there is still time to mount a credible opposition to David Cameron’s government of failures.
Postscript: One aspect of the speech I haven’t explored in detail relates to housing benefit, and the pledge to build more houses. Be warned: It seems this heralds another expensive and wasteful private finance initiative (PFI) adventure: “We would let [councils] keep some of the savings they make, on the condition that they invested that money in helping build new homes.” I have a feeling that those homes would fall into private hands at some point in the future – at huge cost to the taxpayer. Again.