Iain Duncan Smith is taking the fight to Labour today, accusing them of being the ‘party of welfare’ with their ‘heads in the sand’ as he marks the next ‘roll-out’ of Universal Credit. Families will be able to receive the benefit for the first time from now on, with the ‘roll-out’ starting in the north-west of England.
The Work and Pensions Secretary was typically tetchy when confronted with the suggestion on the Today programme that his flagship reform had been beset by problems, saying:
‘Would you rather us take a gamble? Throw everything at it at once? Have a problem like tax credits where nobody got their money and it was a real disaster?’
He accused Mishal Husain of wanting ‘to try and look at this in an utterly negative way’, and argued that it was better to implement the reform slowly and get it right, rather than make a mess of it. Certainly its glacial progress seems to have been accepted by all - one of the ministers who has dealt with him on the reforms says ‘I do think it’ll work, but whether I’ll be alive to see it finished is another matter’ - but there is still a question about the politics around this reform.
Duncan Smith may taunt the Labour party publicly but behind the scenes what he is trying to do is ensure that he has sufficiently turned the tanker around on welfare reform so that Labour cannot go back over what he has done if it does come into government in 2015. The current Labour policy is that they support Universal Credit but will pause the project to get it in shape. At this point the party could declare the reform a mess and only proceed with a greatly scaled-back version.
The minister needs to ensure that the reform has progressed to the point that even a scaled-back version is impossible and that the only option for Labour is to keep sailing in the same direction that he has set, even if the party has to sail for many, many years before the reform is complete. This won’t just involve large numbers of people signed up to the benefit, but a sense from those involved in and affected by the reforms (what civil servants like to call ‘stakeholders’) such as employers and housing associations that UC is the right thing to do, as well as clear evidence that this reform, which has looked so messy, is in fact tidying up the welfare system and changing lives.