Peter Hoskin

Why the Tories will win the welfare debate

Why the Tories will win the welfare debate
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I took a pew at James Purnell’s talk to the Social Market Foundation earlier today, and it was striking just how far he went to distinguish Labour’s tough line on benefit claimants from the Tories’ tough line on benefit claimants. There were ideological distinctions between “freedom from” and “freedom to”; claims that only Labour understand how to “build people’s capability”; and a line about how neither David Cameron nor Christopher Grayling have made much reference to “child poverty” recently.  

The last point is particularly desperate. Sure, they don’t talk about “child poverty” – but that’s because it’s been used by Labour to fake progress by shifting families from one statistical column to another.  But, even still, the Tories have signed-up to the Government’s child poverty targets. And both are agreed that the best method for lifting children out of poverty is to get families back into work.  The Tories have their plans to do just this, so what does it matter if they’re not couched in such explicit “child poverty” terms?  

In the end, once you’ve waded through the word-play, you’re left with Labour policies which more-or-less mirror Tory proposals (which more-or-less mirror the contents of the Freud Review etc. etc.). So how can either side win the welfare debate?  

Well, the Tories have two things in their favour. The first is the simple point that Labour have talked about getting tough on benefit claimants for around a decade – why should we believe that anything will change now? Labour has fought poverty.  Poverty won. 

But the second may be the clincher – it’s that the Tories don’t have Gordon Brown as their leader. In recent weeks, I’ve done my best to chart Brown’s fluctuating approach to reform. In many policy areas, he’s projected himself as a Blairite reformer, only to dabble in a little stealth centralisation on the side. However, I’ve always regarded his Government’s welfare policy as free from this centralising bent. That is, until last week – when Brown mooted the idea of giving large state-handouts to people coming off benefits and going into work.  It’s this brand of Brownite doublethink that will fatally undermine Purnell’s reform agenda.  

That said, the Tories must go all-out to stay ahead of Labour on this.  Brown now rapidly copies all good Tory proposals – he’s the political equivalent of a Chinese counterfeiter peddling fake luxury goods.  The Tories need to be stronger, clearer and louder about why we should believe they are the real thing.