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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  • Mandy Hall


    • treborc1

      It’s nowhere near finally knowing what Freud and Purnell did and now Reeves I do not believe a single word of this.

  • driver56

    Labour need to take a look at the benefits system and show a more considerate side to benefit claimants with proper training for those who need to reskill etc. Then the genuinely sick and disabled can be helped to live with a degree of dignity. The demonisation of people on benefits should have been better defended by labour.

    • There is no more pernicious a Tory phrase than ‘genuinely sick and disabled’. The man in the street, or the party leader in the street, casting back to Ed’s revealing ‘I met a man’ tale, is not capable of judging disability, no matter how much IDS and the Hate Mail would love to persuade us so. That the phrase, with it’s presumption of commonplace ‘fake disability’, has become an accepted part of the debate, shows how far we have fallen.

      • driver56

        you are right, we are falling for the dripping poison routine.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    A whole article about how to talk about benefits and not one mention of the fact that people on the minimum wage get a cut to their income every single year and which we then have to top up through benefits. This lack of understanding of inflation, this basic innumeracy is why the welfare bill is so high and growing relentlessly.

    Link the minimum wage to the cost of living or stop pretending that you give a damn.

  • Dave Postles

    From Rev Paul Nicolson for Taxpayers Against Poverty:

    ‘Dear all, I am highlighting these two comments from posts on TAP facebook
    because they and cases I meet drive me to the conclusion that jobcentres do
    not and cannot administer justice; therefore nothing less than total
    abolition will do.

    I have signed this petition but it falls short of the required remedy to a
    great injustice.


    I am a single 58 year old lady out of work not out of choice. I have done
    continued voluntary work for the past 4 years and struggled to feed myself.
    Hastings Job Centre chose to steal from me right over the Christmas period
    2014. it left me with No Electric which left me in Pitch dark after 4pm. I
    was unable to cook what tin food I had and unable to buy food over the
    Christmas period. I could not do any washing or listen to the radio. They
    sent me an email this week asking me to make a Donation to their Party.
    Well I think I made that Donation over Christmas or should I say they stole
    it from me. If I stole from them or anyone else I would go to prison.


    1) as an unemployed man, I go to the Job Centre once a fortnight. I take
    both email evidence of job applications with me, as well as a written log
    of activities relating to job searching. I receive a much varied response,
    from a cursory glance at my evidence to the advisor not even looking at it
    at all. My point being that there is not even a standard approach within
    one JCP, so it seems fair to assume that attitudes toward job seekers and
    potential sanctions also vary across the country, so there is little or no
    consistency of approach.

    2) if I go next door and chin my neighbour, the police would no doubt
    arrest me, charge me with assault and sent me to court. In court I may get
    a prison sentence or a non-custodial one. Whatever the consequences the law
    WILL NOT try to starve me and/or prevent me from eating, paying bills etc.
    If I turn up late or miss a DWP appointment, they can take my JSA away for
    months at a time. I live alone and have a serious medical condition, so my
    health, mental and physical would be immediately compromised. Please tell
    me how the 2 ‘crimes’ compare!!!!


    We have laws about fraud that are properly dealt with by the courts.
    Benefit sanctions administered by jobcentre officials have no place at all
    in this supposedly just nation; rich and poor are all human and should be
    equal before the law but they are not. Why is it that you are assumed not
    motivated by self interest if you are among the poorest residents; but
    highly motivated if you are already rich.

    Even Adam Smith writes about the “necessaries” that no one should be
    without. Beveridge sought to slay his five giants including “want”. The two
    major parties seem to have forgotten the wisdom of their gurus.

    The level of unemployment benefits has been set with the all the moral
    hazards of idleness in mind – £72.40 a week single adult JSA has been
    shrinking in value since 1980. It is now only marginally better than having
    do income at all.

    It is not only the sanction that creates misery it it the months of
    consequential debts after having no income for three months or so.

    I can add that the courts impose fines and punishments that are
    proportional to the income of the offenders. I volunteered for Zacchaeus
    2000 who had a contract with Wycombe Magistrates Court to help people fill
    in their means statements for the magistrates when they could not pay their
    fines. I often got the fines reduced or remitted. I did that on most
    Wednesdays for ten years while I was a Vicar in Bucks.

    No such just procedure exists in the jobcentres.

    *Taxpayers Against Poverty*

    No British citizen without an affordable home and an adequate income in
    work or unemployment.

    93 Campbell Road, Tottenham, London N17 0BF, 0208 3765455, 07961 177889,


    http://www.z2k.org, http://www.prohousingalliance.com

  • “the rules are already pretty tough,” Now there’s an understatement. The rules are so tough disabled people are regularly killing themselves, and unknown numbers more (including me) are choosing not to claim benefits because the system is so damaging, But Labour are adamant they’re keeping the Work Capability Assessment, no matter no disabled person trusts it to deliver a fair assessment. The WCA actually sets out from a presumption you are a fraud and intent on defrauding the system, and Labour deliberately designed it that way with the assistance of Unum Provident, even though Unum were already being sued in the States as an ‘outlaw company’ running ‘disability denial mills’.

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    I think this analysis is missing something around the frankly bizarre and somewhat perverse structure of the modern welfare state that 50 years of incoherent patching by politicians of all sides has created.

    The basic, essential benefits like job seekers allowance are woefully inadequate yet all sorts of different entitlements and supports have been tacked on over the decades and as the debate about the benefits cap highlighted, some individuals and families actually enjoying a very generous, arguably excessively generous level of support.

    It’s as much about the relative levels of different benefits and how entitlement is assessed – they no longer reflect what many people hold as being fair or just.

  • Robert Leslie

    I’ve commented on this loads but I will do so again. ‘Housing Benefit’ is out of control according to IDS and his Civil Service acolytes – costing the tax-payer millions of pounds of unnecessary expenditure. Total bollocks!
    The net gainers from ‘Housing Benefit’ are not the tenants in receipt of it but the private landlords who bank it. The landlords charge above market-value rents safely assured that their local council’s H.B. budget will pick up the tab. The claimants are stigmatised as ‘scroungers’ and the true exploiters of the system laugh all the way to the bank!
    This stinks! It’s all down to Mrs T’s ‘double whammy’ – the abolition of ‘rent councils’ (anyone remember them? – they were intended to put a stop to Rackmanites nd ensure fair rents for private tenants) and the iniquitous, scurrilous, shameful sell-off of the social housing stock. Of her many crimes against the working people of the UK this was her worst! We continue to count the cost. You were wrong, wrong and wrong again Margaret!


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