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.