James Forsyth

Liam Byrne tries to answer Labour’s welfare question

Liam Byrne tries to answer Labour's welfare question
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One can’t help but feel sorry for Liam Byrne. He is a fish out of water in Ed Miliband’s Labour party, something he implicitly acknowledged when he announced his intention to run for Mayor of Birmingham. But then Birmingham voted against having a mayor so he had to stay in the shadow Cabinet, albeit having lost control of Labour’s policy review.

In The Observer today, Byrne floats the idea of increasing the contributory element in welfare. Now, Labour keep musing about this without setting out any details. I suspect this is because it’ll be very expensive if it simply leads to higher payments for those who’ve paid in over the years. If it is to be anywhere near cost neutral, it’ll need to involve far smaller payments to those who haven’t worked or those who have only done so for brief periods. This will, to put it mildly, not be popular on the left so is probably a non-starter for Miliband. But it is also probably a non-starter with the voters to go into an election in the current economic circumstances with a policy that will substantially increase the welfare bill.

Labour sources stress that Ed Miliband doesn’t intend to back down from the welfare debate. He intends to attack George Osborne’s comments on the Philpott case when he launches Labour’s local election campaign on Monday. But he needs some answers to the question of how Labour would bring the benefits bill down and how it would prevent the system from being abused.