Solidarity not scroungers

Natan Doron

Ed Miliband may have just pulled off the most unexpected trick of all: delivering a populist Labour stance on welfare. New research by the Fabian Society and the charity Crisis published today showed that there is overwhelming public support for a programme to tackle the root causes of housing benefit spending. Not only is this is a politics of welfare that Labour can win on, but it can do so by building a social security system that people feel works for everyone.

Protecting social security is central to many of the progressive ends dear to the Labour party: poverty prevention and alleviation; collective insurance against bad luck; providing support for young, elderly and disabled people. But the public politics of social security have grown increasingly toxic. This has left Labour often unsure about what to say and how to talk about this issue to an ever more hostile public.

On thing is clear though: silence is not an option. Simply saying nothing leaves the territory clear for the right to frame the social security debate around the language of the ‘scrounger’. It also makes Labour seem evasive and remote from people’s true concerns.

That is one reason why Ed Miliband’s speech today was so important. That many on the left of the party are uncomfortable is partly the point. But this speech was no rehash of attempts by Labour figures in the past to reinforce negative perceptions of those receiving benefit payments.

What Miliband did today was to shift the focus from the individual to the wider socioeconomic context. This was done by shining a light on ‘hidden’ forms of poverty: those who are in work but struggling to keep up with rent levels that rise whilst their wages stagnate; or those who earn just enough to get by in a volatile rental market but not enough to be able to get a mortgage. These people do not choose to be poor but they have been overtaken by events beyond their control.

Crucially, Miliband was also clear about the root causes of one of the most controversial areas of social security spending: our housing benefit bill. We spend over £20bn a year, in large part because wages are not keeping pace with rent levels (or wages at the top end of the spectrum). We also suffer from a chronic shortage of housing. Housing benefit in its current form, like large parts of the social security budget, is picking up the costs of economic failure.

So Miliband was right to say:

“We can’t afford to pay billions on ever-rising rents when we should be building homes to bring down the bill. Thirty years ago for every £100 pounds we spent on housing, £80 was invested in bricks and mortar and £20 was spent on housing benefit. Today, for every £100 we spend on housing, just £5 is invested in bricks and mortar and £95 goes on housing benefit.”

But Labour must understand that facts in and of themselves will not change hearts and minds. We saw instances in our research of people simply ignored facts that challenged their views on social security. One woman, when presented with the statistic that only 13 per cent of those claiming housing benefit were born outside of the UK, said that whilst she knew she was being ‘prejudiced’ she had to be honest. Being honest in this case meant being concerned that too many people from abroad were claiming housing benefit.

Labour must accept that addressing the public politics of social security will be difficult, timely and messy. People often hold conflicting views and emotions can build a resistance to new information. But deep down, people are caring. If someone is in need, people will want to help them. If our economy is causing people to suffer poverty despite their best efforts, people will demand action. Labour must continue to highlight that many people are in need and that our economy is in fact failing to keep people above the poverty line.

Changing the debate will mean starting a new conversation. Today’s speech was a positive first step. But to be truly effective, much of the work will have to take the shape of real face-to-face conversations. This will mean Labour activists getting out of the meeting room and into the kitchens, pubs and onto the doorsteps of the land. If they do it right then Miliband might not only win an election, but could come to define a new era for social security in the UK.


  1. David Beere

    I’ve always been a ‘moderate’(c) R.Jenkins.

    Isn’t this piece “moderate”?!!

  2. Donald Porter

    Unfortunately the last Labour Government did not even try to intervene in the run away housing market which lead to significant rises in the rent charged by buy to let landlords. The Tories continue to attack social housing through the bedroom tax depite the fact there is little done to provide smaller accomodation. Labour still shys away from Nationalisation or indeed public ownwership of any kind. The “free market” will never deliver social justice but neither will unaccountable bureaucracies. Labour need to return to the concept that ALL citizens should contibute to society according to ability and be rewarded according to need. A benefit system that encourages people to live seperately rather than in larger family groups will always prove more costly in terms of care and lack of mutual dependence.

  3. Brendan Caffrey

    The Lady above who was prejudiced but honest is a test case for legitimating welfare spending to “others”!
    One statistic of 13% is not only not enough information, but can be received by a listener as patronising.
    The way forward: training in canvassing?

  4. David Beere

    I am sure that this paper will move debate within the Labour Party in a progressive direction.
    Sadly , however, it does not look as if any of the Labour Leadership are prepared to consider controlling Private Sector rents. The Thatcherite project ,now taken up with relish by Messrs Cameron , Osborne and Clegg gave away Council Housing with the result that a much enlarged Private Rented Sector was the outcome. The reason why so much money had to be expended on Housing Benefit was that Renters could charge the rents they wanted! (An outcome devoutly to be desired by Conservative, Right-wing Free marketeers.) Were it to be the case that Private Sector Rents were controlled,and gradually reduced in real terms,then the sums spent on Housing Benefit would be reduced. An easy thing an incoming Labour Government could do is to freeze Private Sector rents for, say, two or three years. The cost to the government:nothing. Is this too easy? Are we shooting at a political open goal ? Perhaps the reason is that generation of
    Labour politicians has grown up that never knowing that the State can ‘intervene’ ,so timorous have people been of the free market steamroller.

  5. Paolo Sanviti

    Public politics and social security requires moral and political rules, regulate with common life and common sense, for community and civic friendship with justice and true responsibility.

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