A-ha! Labour have hit on a line on the benefits cap, and Liam Byrne is peddling it in the Daily Telegraph this morning. ‘Now, there are some people who are against this idea altogether,’ he writes, ‘Neither I, nor Ed Miliband are among them.’ The way he sees it, he goes on to explain, is that there should be a cap but it should be set locally, so that it could be higher than £26,000 in more expensive areas such as London, and potentially less in other areas. Bryne adds that there should be an ‘an independent body like the Low Pay Commission to determine the level at which it is set for different area.’
The Times has a useful article (£) by Roland Watson and Michael Savage, tucked away on p.28 of today's edition, that provides some further context for Labour's position. Here are three details that stand out from it, along with my thoughts:
1) The next phase of Miliband's leadership? ‘Shadow Cabinet members have been ordered to move into “phase 2” of the party's policy review,’ reveal Watson and Savage, ‘They have been told to push ideas that better represent Mr Miliband's priorities of helping the “squeezed middle” and taking on vested interests.’ Which is kinda hilarious, if you ask me. ‘Phase 2’ implies some sort of system to Miliband's thinking — but, as we've seen this week, there's barely anything systematic about it at all. You'd have thought that, with a proper (and more timely) policy review, Labour would have had a clear position on a benefits cap from the start, but instead they've had to clarify it now, several days late. It looks more like a rush job, or a political afterthought, than anything else.
And it's not just us that have noticed Miliband's weird aversion to actual policy. The Times article quotes a shadow cabinet minister saying, ‘There's obviously a problem and there's no point saying there isn't’. They add: ‘It comes from the leaders’ office. It has to come from the top. There's a real problem with turning ideas into solid policies — but he's got no one there doing that. It's like he has the big narrative right, but he doesn't have the ideas to back up the rhetoric.’
3) The politics of the benefits cap. The main question now, politically, is whether Miliband's new position will regain lost ground, or whether it is too little, too late, to contain the Tories' lead on welfare. But the politics don't end there. The Times notes that, ‘Labour officials denied that the move would amount to an acceptance by the party for regional pay bargaining in the public sector, which is being pushed by George Osborne.’ It's quite a thought, in spite of the denials. There are plenty of arguments for regional variation floating around certain corners of the coalition, including for a regional minumum wage. Have Labour just unintentionally nudged that sort of thinking into the mainstream?