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Labour split on welfare reform

By Harry Phibbs
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Writing in the Daily Telegraph this morning the Labour MP for Rochdale, Simon Danczuk wrote:

"The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing,” said Harold Wilson. It’s time this sense of crusading zeal was applied to helping people off benefits – not pushing them into poverty – and back into work. Seeing people that are capable of working languish for years on benefits is not something the Left should be proud of. It’s something we should be fighting. Otherwise why call ourselves the Labour Party?

He went on:

We should all experience the feeling of satisfaction after a hard day’s work, the pride at getting a promotion, the sense of achievement from making a difference in the workplace. But for those trapped in welfare dependency these experiences will never happen. This is a criminal loss of human potential and something everyone interested in progressive politics should rail against.

Although he did not vote for Ed Miliband to be Party leader Mr Danczuk is not one of the "usual suspects", but a Party loyalist who seldom rebels. 

His fellow Labour MP Frank Field is a better known independent voice. He was interviewed on Sky News and spoke in support of the Benefits Cap of £26,000 a year or £500 a week:

The £500 cap in my constituency is a mega sum. When it first came out voters reaction in Birkenhead was have you allowed this to go on for this long? Most people in see in my constituency surgeries or walking around, people talking to us, I mean 11, 12, 13,000 pounds a year is their cap which they actually get from working. The idea that we’ve allowed a welfare state to pay out these sums without trying to put some element of responsibility back strikes them as well so I hope we are going to be really tough on that, cap, really tough on making sure you have got to actually do certain things to get welfare and above all you’ve actually had to pay in to get it.

Labour MP Tom Harris, despite being a shadow minister, has joined in, declaring that welfare dependency was “killing the city”.

He adds: 

“We sometimes allow ourselves to be seen as the party of welfare when clearly we should be trying to be seen as the party of work. We are the Labour Party and not the Benefits Party.”

 “We [the Labour Party] were not set up as a charity, or a social work organisation. We will always look after the most vulnerable in society, the homeless, the destitute, no other political party will do that. But that is not why we are here. That is not our priority. Our priority is working people.”

Another Shadow Minister, Helen Goodman, says Labour would not reverse the cuts to the spare room subsidy - see film.

Of course there are also rebels on the other side of the argument. While Labour's official position was to abstain on benefit sanctions for those refusing work, over 40 Labour MPs voted against the measure.

Perhaps given that difficultty, it is no surprise that Liam Byrne's article in The Observer yesterday was so unconvincing.

He wrote:

The government's supposed reforms are not only heartless, but also hopeless. Housing benefit changes cost more than they save, tax credit changes are making families better off on benefits, the work programme has become all programme and no work, and universal credit is descending into universal chaos.

If he is really convinced the Housing Benefit changes will increase the cost to the taxpayer, what is his difficulty in pledging to reverse them?

He says that under a Labour Government "people must be better off in work than living on benefits." He also says that those offered  a job or training "would have to take this opportunity or lose benefits."

The trouble is that Labour promised this last time and failed to deliver. Few will be convinced that Ed Miliband would be tougher than Tony Blair in this respect. The rhetoric of these proposals is familiar over recent decades. The difference is that Iain Duncan Smith is making them a reality. Mr Byrne seems to support this in principle, but oppose it in practice.

Mr Byrne adds that :

We should start by letting councils give priority in social housing allocations to those who work and contribute to their community.

Councils already can do this. I'm afraid many have refused to, especially Labour councils such as Mr Miliband's local authority Camden.

But many other mostly Conservative councils are doing so. My council of Hammersmith and Fulham is among them. (Our Labour councillors abstained when we debated it.)

Mr Byrne's position is an attempt to split the difference between Party factions but is unconvincing. We already knew that the Left felt strongly on the subject. We are now reminded that the Blairites do as well.