19 Jun 2014

Can Miliband persuade voters he’s tough on welfare?

Ed Miliband lavished praise on the IPPR report The Condition of Britain this morning at its launch at a cinema in east London. But the report has some pretty scathing words for the work he and his then allies did in government.

The IPPR report says the Gordon Brown Treasury era reforms were characterised by “an increasingly managerial style… complex monitoring regimes…” and that the last Labour government “increasingly used cash payments… rather than make social investments to meet important social needs.”

The accusation is that Labour splashed cash sticking plasters around, too much focus on cash transfers and not enough on re-thinking the welfare state. As the proud self-proclaimed architect of tax credits, that must imply some hefty criticism of Ed Miliband’s years at the Treasury.

Anyway, that argument isn’t fully prosecuted but left hanging, and the IPPR report is fundamentally about coming up with some solutions to the left’s long-standing question: how do we do more with less?

Labour Leader Ed Miliband Speech In Essex

One of its boldest proposals is to freeze child benefit where children are over five. Labour has walked past that one – thanks, but “no thanks” was the spirit of Ed Miliband’s answer when I asked if he might even consider it in a re-jigged form. Can’t help thinking Ed Balls (not present at the IPPR launch) prefers his own ideas unveiled last autumn.

Ed Miliband’s focusing instead on other welfare changes, amongst them: cutting benefits for 18-21-year-olds and making jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) payments more closely related to contributions.

Instead of JSA, under-21s without A-levels will get a parental means-tested youth allowance conditional on them being in training. Labour rejected a close cousin of this idea as recently as last autumn, which shows the ingenious re-think developed or desperation, depending on your point of view.

Ed Miliband hopes this will help him convince some voters that he is tough on welfare. But there must be a danger that if he carries on whistling this sort of tune too loudly, some of those ex-Lib Dem voters who’ve defected to Labour won’t like what they’re hearing.

We’re already hearing from some Labour supporters who think it’s rough justice for the under-21s. One Labour former minister very much in the centre of the party told me this morning he felt awful when he heard about the policy idea and believed it “simply won’t work.”

Ed Miliband was introduced by an IPPR trustee who works for the Weekend FT – not a paper strongly associated with the spirit of redistribution. On the subject of newspapers, Ed Miliband pointed out he’d heard this morning’s Sun newspaper attacked him for being right wing. His grim hostage-style photo holding up a copy of the Sun was aggravated by an apology for having gone ahead with the photo.

He ended with a rousing straight-to-camera jaw-jutting defence of what he’s about. He knows he’s seen as weak and a geek. He’s been told by one top adviser that he’s on a path to defeat if he doesn’t change tack and offer bigger, transformative change. He’ll be hoping today was a step in that direction.

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