A little less them, a little more us – top tips for how to talk about benefits

26th March, 2015 7:15 am

Yesterday’s announcement that Labour will reduce foodbank use, sort out some of the problems with benefits and reform sanctions is another clear and welcome dividing line on welfare policy. But whilst Labour’s policies might be a world away from the Tories, there are still occasions when the rhetoric veers dangerously close.


On the one hand, Rachel Reeves has done an incredibly difficult job very well, not least in focusing on how people are struggling, how low wages and the high cost of living are driving up the benefit bill and on the hardship caused by the bedroom tax and benefit sanctions. On the other, there are her comments last week on Labour not being the party of people on benefits, or previous statements that Labour will be tougher than the Tories when it comes to slashing the benefits bill. These conflicting messages can end up leaving people confused about what Labour stands for and reinforce prejudices about benefits and those who claim them.

Labour needs to be consistent on welfare and it can do so without being seen as soft. Here’s my top tips for how.

  1. Keep the focus on the underlying reasons people need benefits and the real drivers of the benefit bill – low wages, the lack of housing, unaffordable childcare, the high cost of living. These are the things we need to address.
  2. Talk about the consequences of cutting benefits – issues like the impact of the bedroom tax and the rise in foodbank use resonate with people. They highlight how Government welfare policies are cruel and punitive.
  3. Acknowledge people’s concerns when needed but don’t dwell on them. There may be a tiny minority who try to play the system but the vast majority really need the support they get. What’s more the rules are already pretty tough, the use of sanctions is widespread and benefit levels are not overly generous – JSA is just £72.40/week.
  4. Don’t fall into the false dichotomy of those in work versus those out of work. Not only are there are a million people in work who still need support from housing benefit to cover their rent but many others are trapped in a cycle of insecure low paid work and out of work benefits. Over 2/3s of JSA claims are for less than 12 months. Most people currently out of work have worked in the past and will work again in the future.
  5. Remember benefit claimants are us not them. There are over 5 million working-age people claiming benefits. Most of us are only one redundancy notice or diagnosis away from needing support. Benefits are there for all of us and we should be damn glad they are.
  6. Focus on people. Telling human stories is powerful. The right has been incredibly effective in searching out extreme examples to demonstrate how the system is broken (open the Sun or Daily Mail on pretty much any day of the week). The left needs similarly to tell stories to show why support is important and why cuts like the bedroom tax are cruel.

It is well known that public views about benefits and those who receive them have hardened and of course politicians want to be on the right side of public opinion, but they also have a crucial role in shaping it. Progressive policies and a positive narrative are the way to do this. If Labour also tries to be seen as the toughest we send out conflicting messages and the chance is none of them get heard. Over the next few weeks and beyond, we need to hold our nerve and resist the temptation to dance to the Tory tune on welfare.

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