Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Left Wing opposition to Benefit Cap is flawed. This is why.

The coalition government have played a very good game on the proposed benefit cap. Labour activists have been throwing their arms up in complete indignation at the latest ‘attack on the poor’ from the nasty Tories.  They bang the drum for the working-class, the underclass and the downright poverty stricken in society who will most likely suffer from these proposals.  They are right, of course, to highlight the problems with the proposals, but my goodness, they’re naïve. They’re preaching only to the converted. No one else will listen to them.

This is why things have gone well for the Tories. Forget about the result of any votes on this issue, the only thing that concerns those running the party is the votes at the next election and, in the public’s mind, the Tories are absolutely on the money when it comes to this.  Now, I know all too well just how badly flawed this plan is but that’s because I’m involved in politics and take an active interest in legislation and I couple that with my ideological position. The public, as a whole, do not. It’s not that the public are ignorant, or stupid, but they’re just occupied with other issues far more pressing to them to investigate the detail.

So, when the people on the centre ground are looking at the arguments for and against this is what they’re presented with by the media: Tories want to cap benefits at £26K a year but Labour thinks that’s too low.  That’s not the conservative media pushing that line, it is all media. Look in the Guardian and you’ll see there’s no shortage of Labour/Left wing commentators highlighting the examples of generally agreeable people likely to be hit by the cuts.  That entirely misses the point – the public are all too aware of many on benefits who play the game and they want something done about it.

This is an issue that time and again, the Left fail to address. Let’s stop pretending, stop making excuses and stop ignoring the genuine complaints about benefit culture. The statistics, unfortunately, are rather irrelevant. There is a public perception of a benefit culture and so it exists and must be addressed, whether evidence backs it up or not. Failure to acknowledge this will lead to a whole generation spent in opposition for Labour and the Lib Dems (note that the Tories aren’t at all bothered that the Lib Dems aren’t with them on this).

The opposition to the proposals is correct technically but utterly flawed, politically. The proposals are a sop to a problem that exists in the public mind and any opposition needs to be formed around a different way to solve the problem.  Instead of saying ‘these proposals won’t work and could make things worse’ Labour should be saying ‘Our proposal to fix the problem is this and these are the reasons it’s better than their proposals’. 


  1. Some of the writing in this blog is staggeringly patronising. The rest could be summed up as "the proles don't get it".


    1. Anon - sorry you feel that way. Whenever I come across someone I find patronising I usually like to tell them why. That way I know that my calling them patronising doesn't just sound like someone who can't adequately counter their argument.

  2. Ed,
    You can't seriously be suggesting that the Left should pursue policies based upon erroneous public perceptions that are manufactured by a pretty uniformly Right-wing media.

    As you say yourself, benefit fraud is 'a problem that exists in the public mind'. Of course there are benefit cheats but there already is a proportionate response to that relatively small problem. If this appears as a larger problem in the public mind then the only rational and principled thing to do is to consistently point out the error of such a view. To do otherwise is to abandon some of the poorest in society to the vagaries of public opinion in formed in rancid public sphere. The debate on this issue (and others) will simply be all the more rancid if the Left simply concedes ground to the Right for reasons of political expediency.

    1. Rab, I'm not suggesting that the left endorse Tory policy when it is so clearly flawed, I'm just saying that the Left continue to ignore the concerns of the general public whether they are real or perceived. We tend to say 'yes there are those who abuse the system and perpetuate generational attitudes to benefits' without ever saying this is what we will do to stop it. We dismiss the public's concerns as being irrational and this is clearly counter productive.

  3. I think you're tilting at windmills a little here. I don't think the Left do dismiss the concerns of the public as a irrational but they are largely erroneous. I don't want to make excuses for individuals who grossly abuse benefits but I don't believe it's the massive problem the media present it as. Essentially pretending that it is, simply plays into (and gives credence to) the Tory agenda. Ed Miliband is already very good at this.

    I appreciate the problem you're grappling with here. Public perception matters, whether irrational or erroneous, but shouldn't the Left be discussing how to change hearts and minds on the issue?

  4. If you ask the public -who hold these perceptions of a problem - whether they think their concerns are dismissed by the left wing, I think you'll find a response in the affirmative. If there is a perception of a problem, then the problem exists and must be responded to.

    I didn't want to focus on Labour but I will for now - until Labour realise that they don't have the popular support of the working class they won't win back a majority. Labour never properly got to grips with how to maintain the support of a group that, whilst being semi dependent on left wing fiscal policy, held staunchly right wing values. You can't turn the perception on it's head any more; that time has passed and the opportunity missed. Labour (or hopefully for me, the Greens) have to convince that group that they are valued and their concerns are being addressed. Once that's done, by all means ensure that mechanisms are in place to stop such misconceptions festering again, but unless something is done now, Labour won't get back to that position of power again.

  5. Ed,
    There's a debate within Labour circles at the moment that seems to be advocating a return to a more social democratic economic model accompanied by social conservatism - I think it's trying to speak to what you have referred to here as the semi dependence of the working class on left wing fiscal policy, while holding staunchly right wing values. There are a number of questions that arise from this: first of all, what is Left-wing or social democratic about attacking benefits?

    And how does attacking benefits advance working class economic interests?

    And if it doesn't then why would we think there were any working class votes in doing it?

    And while we're at it, what evidence is there that the working class are staunchly Right wing or socially conservative, or at least any more so than any other group?

    What we have at the moment is a debate designed to stigmatise people on benefits because it typically associates benefits and allowances with being ‘down and out’, dependent and/or lazy. In fact, welfare is potentially transformative, providing people with the time and means to turn their lives around. But that's not something you'll be reading in the tabloids anytime soon (and that is perhaps exactly the point that you are making).

    It's precisely the Green's willingness to defy the idiocy of much media debate on fiscal issues that makes them an attractive voting option for disillusioned Labour supporters like me. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. Now, I'm not suggesting that picking up votes from the those once on the Left of the Labour Party is going to catapult the Greens to power - God knows it didn't Labour. But imagine if the Greens took a more Right-wing position on benefits, would there really be any votes in it for them? They might pick up a few. But they'd hemorrhage many more, and all in pursuit of British politic's Holy Grail; the approval of middle England and the Daily Mail.

    There is a real problem for parties of the Left like the Greens but it isn't going to be solved by aping the Right.