We’re often told that politicians have to make “hard decisions”. This is usually a precursor to a policy announcement that’ll hurt the poorest in society; the “hard decisions” tend to affect the people with the least power. This is what you expect of a Tory government, not of an opposition party responding to an anti-poor budget. But this was exactly what we witnessed at the weekend when Harriet Harman announced that Labour might not oppose the government’s welfare cap.
The benefits cap sounds relatively benign. Putting a limit on how much people can claim sounds reasonable. Particularly when just two years ago people on average mistakenly assumed that 41% of the welfare budget went to unemployed people. The reality was 4%. And when polling from the TUC shows most people think Labour is “too soft” on welfare. In such an anti-welfare climate, many think there’s an argument to be made for the party that was established by and for workers to support tougher welfare measures.
But there’s a problem here. What’s the point of an opposition party: to win votes at whatever cost, even when it’s not guaranteed the policies you’re backing will gain you support (the Tories’ attacks on welfare will always be more convincing than Labour’s); or propose a credible alternative that will affect the terms of the debate and convince people that your plans, and not the incumbent’s, are worth voting for? The latter may be harder to achieve but it’s certainly worth fighting for when the quality of life of tens of thousands of children and the foundations of the welfare state are at stake.
If the government goes ahead with further reducing the benefits cap, the civil service has estimated that 40,000 more children will be forced into poverty. That’s on top of the 3.5 million who are already in poverty. This is, after all, a cap that the Supreme Court said was likely to breach the UN convention on rights of the child. While, limiting tax credits for families with three children or more is an anti-poor proposals that hurts children. If Labour abstain on this, as it looks like they could, they concede ground to the Tories and open the doors for them to launch an even bigger attack on the welfare state.
Most of Labour’s leadership candidates and some within Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) – including London Mayoral candidate Diane Abbott – have come out against the cap. It’s now down to the rest of the MPs to do the same at tonight’s PLP meeting.
For the vast majority of people, claiming benefits is not a lifestyle choice. They forced to do so because they aren’t paid enough at work. Labour know this. They should have the guts to make a different kind of hard decision from the norm: one where they confront what the public think and argue for an alternative. Otherwise, they’ll cease to be a credible opposition and simply help the Tories bring to reality a dystopianesque society, in which large swathes of the in-work poor are barely able to look after their children.