Polling suggests that even in its traditional heartlands, Labour has a lot of convincing to do. The Guardian Northerner‘s political commentor Ed Jacobs stacks up the figures
There’s little doubt that this week’s big political topic has been welfare, a subject which goes to the heart of the scrap now taking place between the Government and Labour. Each is determined to chant the all-important mantra of ‘fairness’ most loudly.
For ministers shuttling this week from one studio interview to the next, the decision to scrap child benefit altogether for households where at least one person is earning £60,000 or more whilst simultaneously capping benefit increases by 1% is a twin symbol of fair play. In this view, those with the broadest shoulders take the pain while those on benefits don’t enjoy increases higher than pay rises for those in work.
Labour meanwhile argues the contrary, calculating that it is unfair that, for example, two parents on £40,000 will still be entitled to full child benefit whilst a family where one parent works on £60,000 loses it altogether. Similarly, Shadow Ministers have argued that capping benefit increases to 1% is tantamount to a ‘strivers’ tax’ given that the majority of claimants are in work.
This week, the fierce debate over welfare reform took on a distinctly northern tone as the Daily Telegraph reported that the 2020 Group, a panel of 70 Conservative MPs including the Education Secretary Michael Gove who is a friend of David Cameron’s, and Matthew Hancock, a business minister and former chief of staff to George Osborne, has called for paying lower levels of benefits to those in the north.
On the face of it such a situation should be a nuclear option for a party that desperately needs northern votes if it is to entertain any hope of an outright majority come 2015. The problem for Labour, however, is that in its northern heartlands, it is the Conservatives rather than Miliband et al who appear to have won the ‘fairness’ battle when it comes to welfare, leaving the opposition in a state of considerable difficulty.
Take the proposal for lower benefits in northern England. While Labour’s MP for Newcastle East and former Cabinet Minister, Nick Brown, declared that the idea was simply “cruel and stupid”, in January the party was actively calling for the Government’s overall benefit cap to differentiate between regions based on the fact that someone in the north would need less than someone in London. If I were a Tory spin doctor right now I’d be on Twitter using the hash tag #muddledthinking.
While Labour is in danger of tying itself into such knots, it also faces further trouble in its northern heartlands. In the latest of the Sunday Times‘ weekly YouGov polls, we find that 78% of northern respondents support stopping child benefits being paid to households where someone is earning £60,000 or more; 45% support limiting increases in certain benefits to 1%, compared to 35% who opposed it; and 75% support the Government’s policy of capping the total amount of benefits any single family can receive at £26,000 a year.
Labour can perhaps console itself that just 28% of northern voters express support for one Conservative idea – to scrap housing benefit altogether for under 25s. But the comfort is short-lived. A final finding has 45% of northern voters feeling that the Government is not being tough enough towards people on benefits and that more should be done to force them into work. This compares with 30% who feel that the Government is being too harsh.
Recognising the difficulty, the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls spent the weekend seeking to outwit the Government by proposing that every adult aged over 25 and out of work for more than two years should be obliged to take up a government-provided job for six months, or lose their benefits. But eye-catching though that notion might be, the reality is that Labour is constantly playing catch up, and simply announcing odd welfare policies here and there does not amount to a coherent policy with an underlying theme.
If Ed Miliband’s Labour party is really going to come up with a ‘one nation’ consensus on welfare reform, it has plenty of persuading to do, not least in Doncaster North and Balls’ nearby constituency of Morley and Outwood.