Progressives should back Ed Miliband’s welfare proposals

Working class voters, who the left is supposed to champion, want a fairer and more contributory welfare system.

Working class voters, who the left is supposed to champion, want a fairer and more contributory welfare system

Labour leader Ed Miliband will today set out plans to replace out-of-work benefits for around 100,000 18-to-21-year-olds and replace them with a means tested payment dependent on attending training.

Miliband will also announce plans to make the welfare system more contributory, with people able to claim a higher Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) rate of £71 a week once they have paid national insurance for five years as opposed to two.

The move towards a more contributory system is designed to bring the UK more in line with other European economies, where the contributory element tends to be greater than in the UK. The plan to move some young people off JSA, which would affect around seven out of 10 18-to-21-year-olds currently on the benefit, aims to incentivise them to seek training.

Miliband will say that Labour must “address the long-standing pressures on work, family and people’s sense of fair play that has been piling up for decades”:

“Our country continues to confront a fiscal situation the like of which we have not seen for generations, the result of a financial crash the like of which none of us has ever seen.” 

“We cannot just hope to make do and mend, and we cannot borrow and spend money to paper over the cracks.”

Most interesting perhaps will be the reaction of sections of the Labour party to today’s announcement, most notably the left.

In the past, ‘tough’ sounding announcements on welfare have been greeted unenthusiastically by many activists who interpret it as the leadership pandering to the Daily Mail and other sections of the right-wing press.

And there have been times in the past when this has undoubtedly been true. However it would be a mistake to view today’s announcement as a sop to the right.

Indeed, in attempting to make the welfare system more contributory, Ed Miliband is actually pitching directly to Labour’s working class base, which has long wanted the party to reform the system so that those who work hard see the most benefit.

Despite many popular perceptions, working class voters are the most enthusiastic proponents of welfare reform – almost half believe that if benefits are cut it will help people stand on their own two feet.

It isn’t only working class voters who want the system reformed, either. According to a YouGov poll for IPPR, 78 per cent of people believe the benefits system is failing to reward those who have worked and contributed to it.

This doesn’t mean that Labour should pander to the country’s most regressive instincts on welfare, but it does mean that progressives must recognise the sense of unfairness prevailing in many working class households.

Yes, the left should always push back against the demonisation of people on benefits , but equally important is to remember that a life on benefits is a huge waste of a person’s potential. There is absolutely nothing left-wing about that.

Today’s announcement is also important in the context of an increasingly disenfranchised Labour core vote. Some argue that Labour should forget about blue collar voters and instead concentrate on keeping the support of liberal and ethnic minority voters.

This would be a mistake, however, for as Luke Akehurst recently put it, “Labour’s strength and resilience has been because of the distinctive nature of the party as a party rooted in a class, the working class, and organisationally linked to it via the trade union link.”

It would also be electorally foolish, for as Akehurst adds, “this isn’t the basis of either the much discussed 40 per cent strategy or even of a 35 per cent strategy, but of a 20 per cent strategy”.

It is important to view today’s welfare announcement in this context, but also to contrast it with vindictive Tory policies such as the bedroom tax and the removal of housing benefit for under-25s.

Working class voters, who the left is supposed to champion, want a fairer and more contributory welfare system. Ed Miliband and Rachel Reeves appear to understand that, and today’s announcement appeals to this desire for welfare reform without abandoning any of Labour’s best traditions.

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