. Aiming At The Wrong Target | London Progressive Journal
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Aiming At The Wrong Target

Wed 16th Oct 2013

Labour will be “tougher than the Tories” when it comes to forcing long-term beneficiaries back into the labour market; so Labour’s new Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Rachel Reeves, was reported as saying last week. The comment, which was presumably made deliberately to secure the headline, seems to be a mistake on a number of levels.

The report suggested that the comment was a response to polling that showed that voters were twice as confident of the Tories’ effectiveness in dealing with the issue as they were of Labour, and was presumably an attempt to nullify the supposed advantage that the Tories enjoyed.

But my own political experience, and particularly experience of campaigning, suggests that the initiative was based on a false premise. Most voters, unlike those who are politically active and committed, do not have coherent political positions that are consistent across all issues. They are perfectly capable of adopting attitudes that contradict each other from one issue to the next.

What determines the way they vote is not necessarily what they think on a given issue but which issues are uppermost in their minds on polling day. History shows that, with their allies in the right-wing media, the Tories are expert at tweaking the issues that give them an advantage at the crucial time.

So, immigration, supposed benefit “scroungers”, trade unions bent on strike action, all attract headlines as part of a deliberate attempt to raise the salience of issues that suggest that our deep-seated problems are caused by failing to rein in the nefarious activities of ordinary people and are in no way the responsibility of the powerful people who run our economy and take most of its benefits.

It is an important part of this well-proven strategy that Labour should be lured into contesting such issues so that public attention is focused on them. I recall that, in the run-up to the 1992 general election, the Tory press provided the “oxygen of publicity” to fears that a new Labour government would raise income taxes.

The Labour response was to launch, at the beginning of the election campaign, a plan to raise National Insurance contributions. The idea was to use John Smith’s Scottish prudence to show that this was a sensible initiative that should not be regarded as an increase in taxes.

Not surprisingly, this proved difficult to sell to the electorate. Labour’s tax plans became the dominant and continuing theme of the election campaign, with the result that John Major’s government was re-elected.

The lesson to be drawn is that election campaigning is largely about controlling the agenda. A successful opposition campaign should be about exposing the government’s failures and focusing on those elements in its own policy that are likely to strike a chord with most voters.

Time spent on trying to negate vulnerability on issues peddled by the Tories, in other words, is likely to be wasted at best and counter-productive at worst. And that is never more true than on the issue on which Rachel Reeves thought it wise to make her own demarche.

Her comment spells bad news for Labour. It focuses attention on an issue which can only benefit the Tories. No one will believe that on this issue the Labour opposition will be as ruthless as the Tories (and heaven help us if they did!) The most the voters should hear from Labour on the issue of benefit fraud is that, as in every part of public spending, dishonesty will be punished and value for money will be insisted upon.

But what it does do is to validate the Tory insistence that benefit fraud and supposed “scrounging” is an issue that deserves to be at the top of the government agenda. The more Labour proclaims its “toughness’, the more voters will believe that this is an issue that deservedly requires priority government attention - and the more likely they are to think that Labour is simply posturing and that only the Tories are to be trusted to take real action.

Worse, it diverts attention from what Labour should really be saying about the fact that so many people are victims of unemployment and are therefore forced to depend on a generally miserable level of benefits in order to keep house and home together.

The most effective means of reducing the number of beneficiaries would be, in other words, not punishing the unemployed further, but restoring something approaching full employment; and the most important obstacle to that is a damagingly under-performing economy, the direct consequence of failed government economic policies and of their insistence on austerity as a response to recession (now disowned by the IMF, no less) in particular.

Nor is it the case that this is an accidental by-product of Tory policy. It is an essential part of the Tory strategy that the burden of getting our economy moving again is to be borne by working people. According to this doctrine, it is their responsibility to price themselves back into work by accepting lower wages, and accepting fewer rights and protections at work - “zero hours” contracts are a good example.

The pressure on beneficiaries is all of a piece with this approach to our economic problems. In the absence of new jobs, forcing the unemployed back into the labour market can only mean that those with jobs will be compelled to withstand that competition by accepting lower wages if they wish to stay in work. The result? Downward pressure on wages as a whole.

Is this the strategy that Rachel Reeves intends to endorse? Wouldn’t she do better to focus on unemployment and its causes, and persuading her colleagues to develop a strategy for dealing with it?

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