Who can forget Gordon Brown’s meeting with Gillian Duffy? Nothing has come close in recent years to symbolising the disconnect between the Westminster bubble and the working class. As someone who had to endure every painful minute of Duffygate it’s a lesson I’ll never forget.
Mrs Duffy’s memorable intervention on the campaign trail means it’s now widely accepted in our party that calling someone racist simply for raising concerns about immigration putting pressure on public services or pushing down wages is frankly ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other areas where we must guard against being equally tone deaf to what Labour voters are saying.
Welfare is a prime example. Week after week I knock on doors in Rochdale and everywhere I go welfare comes up as an issue. The public’s attitude to Attlee’s cradle to grave welfare state is not what it once was.
There are some – most notably Owen Jones and his disciples on the Metropolitan liberal wing of the left – who not only dismiss this view but condemn anyone who so much as whispers it. In a cruel mirror image of some of the absurd responses to working class concerns about immigration, their knee-jerk response is to portray anyone who expresses less than full confidence in our welfare state as ‘Tories’. What Jones and his disciples never quite grasp is that nine times out of ten, the people complaining about welfare on the doorstep are Labour voters.
Labour has a powerful broad church tradition and it’s this that makes us representative of people from every community. But the head in the sand approach to welfare from a loud chorus on the hard left is not serious politics, and it must be challenged. It’s not Labour politics either, and it’s certainly not Ed Miliband’s politics. We mustn’t forget the direction on welfare set out by Ed in his 2010 conference speech.
“Let’s be honest,” he said, “we also know there are those for whom the benefits system has become a trap. That is not in their interests or the interests of us as a society and we are right when we say it must be challenged. Reforming our benefits system is not about stereotyping everybody out of work, it’s about transforming their lives.”
Ed was right to say this and it’s right that Labour grasps this nettle. Because if the Labour Party can’t talk about the need to get more people into work to fulfil their potential and build a stronger society then we may as well tear up our founding principles.
People forget it wasn’t all that very long ago when we had a Labour Work and Pensions Secretary claiming that the welfare “system is crackers”. The eight principles of welfare reform outlined by David Blunkett in 2005 united around a common Labour principle, which we should never forget; that work is the best route out of poverty.
That the Tories are trying to make incursions into this territory is hardly surprising. But this is Labour territory and we should not be ceding it to a party that famously declared “unemployment is a price worth paying”. Labour understands the value and dignity of work better than any other political party. From our very reason for being founded as a party to represent the workers to our unshakeable bonds with the trade union movement, we have always understood the dignity and transformative power of work. The Tories don’t share these values. For them, the value of work is measured not so much in the dignified sweat on your brow or the strong communities it builds, but the Bentley on your drive and the gated community you can aspire to live in.
The recent pantomime TV debates between Owen Jones and Guido Fawkes, Owen Jones and Harry Cole, or Owen Jones and some other frothing right-winger created a lot of heat but little reforming light on welfare. If Owen and others think that the only people who want a stronger and sustainable welfare system are swivel-eyed crazies then they are wrong. This is by far the dominant view across the country, as every poll shows.
Our welfare system survives and endures on the basis of public support, and if that continues to haemorrhage then we can expect the language and intentions of the Tories to harden like stone. There are many myths about welfare, but the one we all have to face up to is that the status quo is working just fine. It isn’t – and the public knows it.
Reforming housing benefit, getting young people back into work, having a relentless focus on growth and delivering a work programme that supports people into proper employment are the movements where Labour is building a convincing symphony. But this has to be heard above Owen and others simply protesting against reform of any kind.
The terrible performance of this Government has insulated Labour from the kind of fierce scrutiny we can expect in 2015, but from now on we’re likely to be facing big questions on a daily basis. There are plenty more like Gillian Duffy waiting to handbag Labour politicians in Rochdale, and that’s why we need to get our message across loud and clear.
Delivering a reformed welfare system that focuses on getting people back to work will not only help rebuild confidence in Labour’s greatest achievement but also bring lost Labour voters back to the ballot box.
Simon Danczuk is the Labour MP for Rochdale