Why Labour’s opposition to benefit cuts is politically shrewd

Osborne is doing what he does best: playing politics.

The 1% benefits increase over 3 years (a real terms cut) is a classic piece of manoevring by the Chancellor. Splashed across the tabloids the 1% figure echos the Tory (and Coaltion) message: Tough But Fair.

Even though less than half of those affected will be the unemployed (the cap also covers working tax credits) the move has been framed unambiguously in the language of workers vs. shirkers. ‘The injustice!’ says Cameron&Co. ‘of waking at the crack of dawn to go to work, and seeing the curtains of your [unemployed] neighbours shut.’

If the Tories can successfully frame the welfare debate in terms of workers vs. shirkers, then they have won. If the Tory-Labour battle becomes characterised by who has the toughest attitude to the feckless poor, then the Tories will always win. They strike a far more authentic tone.

Labour can only turn welfare into a ‘win’ issue if they frame the debate differently; if they adopt the lanuage of poverty, squalor and indignity, and rescuing the unemployed and low-income hoseholds from that. Workers vs. shirkers doesn’t allow for that, and so they must reject it outright.

They will probably fail to inject a new understanding of welfare into the public consciousness. The one abiding success of the Coalition has been its ability to persuade the public of the need of austerity, explained in the homely language of ‘tightening our belts’ or ‘paying down the debts on the national credit card’. In that context the softer approach to welfare spending that Labour will advocate can easily be caricatured as state largesse.

On the other hand, by adopting language that describes benefit cuts as cruel, vindictive or ignorant – or all three – Labour at least stands a chance or immunising the public to the crude workers/shirkers rhetoric.

To the extent that you might agree with all that, Miliband’s decision not to oppose 1% is politically shrewd, perversely it being the only way for Labour to escape the label as the ‘shirkers’ party’.

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