I think Labour has got into a bad place on welfare reform. It’s not just since Ed Miliband became Leader, it developed during the Labour years in government. I think it is driven by the overwhelming dominance of the Daily Mail agenda of wild exaggeration about benefit cheats and scroungers and how this feeds into opinion polls. We have not found a way to counter the hugely successful tactics of the right in turning public anger about failing economic performance into hostility against the poor and not the rich. Why is the country not up in arms against the bankers and the mega-rich – the people who run the system, benefit most from the system, who have lined their pockets in the most extraordinary way over the past decade and failed everyone else whilst they were doing it?
On Monday former political advisor to Tony Blair John McTernan was on Daily Politics. Commenting on Ed Miliband’s speech, he said that the Leader was ‘missing symbolic policies that indicate which side he’s on’, adding: ‘If he’s serious about saying if you get a job you should be looked at more seriously for council housing rather than simply council housing being for welfare recipients, I think that’s a big signal, it’s a signal that if you get on, if you better yourself, the state will be behind you, I think that’s a much more powerful signal than anything he’s said on policy before.’
This repeats a myth about council housing, which isn’t and never has been (but will be if Shapps gets his way) allocated according to income or employment status but according to defined housing need, it fails to acknowledge why most people receive benefits (unemployment, illness, disability, retirement) or to explain why they are somehow undeserving of a home. It accepts the ‘welfare recipient’ stigmatisation in its entirety. Like the use of the term ‘lifetime tenancy’ when there is no such thing, the term ‘welfare recipient’ carries a package of prejudices and negative images, and has become a classic stereotype. Even Andrew Neil seemed pleased with this contribution.
Ed Miliband’s speech was more balanced than the spin suggested, as Tony described in his earlier post, but it’s the spin that bothers me. He accepted that there was a ‘terrible shortage’ of social housing and that ‘it will be a key test of the next Labour government that we address this issue’. But the sterotype still crept in a roundabout way. ‘People who give something back to their communities – for example people who volunteer or who work’ should be given higher priority in allocations. But it seems to me to accept the media presumption about who lives in social housing and that there is something deficient about them compared to those that ‘give something back’.
More than half of social tenants are retired or economically inactive for reasons other than unemployment. Of the remainder, the vast majority are actually in work or full time education. People entering social housing are often enabled to work for the first time because rents are affordable and the transition to in-work housing benefit is managed better. The level of volunteering on some social housing estates is extraordinary, something we should celebrate, they put Cameron’s prissy big society full of lady bountifuls to shame. The vast majority of tenants are already ‘responsible’ just like the vast majority of home owners and private tenants are.
Ed makes the point that he wants to reward contribution and not punish people. But there is shortage and the people who get punished are those that won’t get a home as a result of a change in priorities – your grannie who needs sheltered housing, your cousin with a severe medical condition who can’t stay in a private bedsit in a shared house, your son or daughter who has had a breakdown and needs supported housing, your sister with 3 kids evicted from her home because she can’t keep up with the mortgage. None of them working and none of them able to volunteer. These are not tearjerkers, this is the real life business of allocating social housing.
John McTernan rightly said that Labour can’t win unless it is seen to represent a wider coalition of people. I am less sure about his view that we were seen as the party of lone parents and immigrants (lone parents and immigrants won’t agree). I think Labour came to be despised by a lot of natural supporters because of Iraq and because of Labour’s association with the rich – not the poor. We no longer looked like the party of ordinary Britain. The parties on yachts in the Med, the moth-like fascination with the wealthy, our soft line on the bankers and the undeserving rich. Not forgetting the mad in-fighting which diverted the government from the ordinary issues facing people.
We fall into the hands of the forces of darkness every time we play the undeserving poor game, every time we add to the negativity around ‘welfare recipients’ without explaining who they are. Every time we fail to challenge the belief that ‘the housing benefit bill was out of control’ rather than point out that rents have gone up and caseload has increased due to the resurgence of the private rented sector. If, as John McTernan seemed to me to be saying, you can only get the middle class on board by dumping on the poor, then the game is up for the left and every variety within it. But if he meant it when he said that we need to have policies attractive to people in the middle as well as at the bottom, then there is enough common ground to unite us all. Because Labour should be on the side of both.