The welfare trap
At his press conference yesterday, Ed Miliband got asked about which cuts he accepted, and replied that Labour has accepted the need for welfare cuts.
The hope, I guess, is that this sounds sensible and moderate. Miliband aims to position Labour against the government making excessive cuts, and against the unrealistic lefties who oppose all cuts. By supporting cuts to a sacred cow like welfare, he shows Labour's credibility and prevents attacks from hostile journalists. And it sort of worked in its own terms, judging by the next day's newspaper coverage of his press conference.
But this kind of triangulation on welfare is a big strategic error.
At the next election in 2015, George Osborne is aiming to pose a choice between the Tories offering tax cuts and Labour offering higher welfare spending. His hope is that faced with that choice, a majority of people will opt for the tax cuts and the Tories will win the election. In order to get to this dividing line, he will be prepared to cut, cut and cut again at the welfare budget over the next few years.
In response to this, Labour could decide to accept every single welfare cut the Tories propose, no matter how ill advised, savage or counter productive. Or they could agree with the need to cut welfare spending overall, but pick a few specific examples to oppose - as Miliband did over child benefit for higher earners, and as his brother did by suggesting a mansion tax instead of the housing benefit cuts.
But both of these are pretty weak options. People affected by the cuts will quite reasonably conclude that there is little point in supporting Labour if they accept the need for massive welfare cuts - whether or not they pick out one or two specific cuts to oppose. And people not affected by the welfare cuts will definitely pick Tory tax cuts over Labour's alternative at the next election if our message for the next four years is "we agree with cutting welfare, but slow down a bit".
Instead, we need to challenge the basic assumptions of the Tory case. The Tory approach to welfare policy is to pick a handful of highly unrepresentative examples of how the system works and pretend that all the money gets spent on them, and to make up their numbers and facts. Their cuts are making millions of people worse off, and thousands homeless or destitute. Their policies involve cutting support which used to help people live and work with dignity, and then spending more on picking up the pieces when people lose their jobs or are forced into residential care.
This should provide ample material for a tough, principled opposition to inflict major damage on an extreme right-wing government, particularly when most people already think that the Tories are more concerned with looking after the rich than ordinary people. And yet this is an issue where Labour is running scared and where our leaders appear to believe that credibility involves pretending we agree with the Tories rather than taking their flawed, lying policies to pieces.
Labour can't win on this issue by splitting the difference between the Tories and the people that the Tories are trying to hurt. And they can't rely on civil society, disabled people's groups, women's groups and all the rest, to defeat the government on its own. Even if there wasn't an absolutely overwhelming moral case for opposing welfare cuts - and there is - it would still be the right thing to do.