‘How Labour can trump the Tories on welfare – and how Starmer will govern’

Tom Belger
J J Ellison / CC BY-SA 3.0
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One little-noticed feature of Labour’s most recent reshuffle was the beefing up of shadow minister Alison McGovern’s duties, folding Chris Evan’s social security brief into her employment brief after Evans moved to the science and technology team.

It seems to mark not just a vote of confidence in McGovern, but also in the idea Labour needs to think seriously about the link between our welfare system and work – and can confidently take the fight to the Tories.

‘Welfare reform’ has mainly been a euphemism for the Tories to slash support for a decade, but it need not be. I don’t recall many big Labour welfare reform ideas since 2010 beyond reversing Tory measures, perhaps reflecting a defensiveness on the issue.

Yet with the Tories ramping up rhetorical attacks and sanctions on benefit claimants this year, perhaps paving the way to hammer Labour, leaving the field to them becomes riskier and riskier.

Labour insiders now sense an opportunity instead to not just counter but outflank the Tories on welfare and who can ‘make work pay’ – painting the Tories’ ‘get any job’ stance and 10-minute Jobcentre appointments as showing a woeful lack of ambition for jobseekers.

McGovern writes today in the FT how a fifth of workers’ jobs are below their skill levels, and five-sixths of the low-paid stay stuck there.

Labour seems unlikely to reverse punitive sanctions as much as many members would like, but working harder to help jobseekers find better-skilled, better-paid jobs seems a win-win.

Plans to devolve responsibility for Jobcentres should help, ensuring vacancies, training and planning fit better into local and regional authorities, employers’ and education establishment’s plans – if a new factory is likely in two years’ time, Jobcentres could help prepare the workforce needed.

Given shadow work and pensions minister Liz Kendall’s health and care background, expect more Labour rhetoric and plans on tackling poor health as a barrier to work too.

Three revealing insights into Starmerism

Sam White, former chief of staff to Keir Starmer, made some revealing comments about a Starmer government in the latest episode of The Power Test released this morning, even if they just confirm what we might expect.

First, he thinks if we win we’ll see a lot more government policy trials, to see if things work before wider rollouts.

Starmer generally “wants to know the evidence, wants to have several meetings”, which has worked well now – but White warns a big prime ministerial challenge is “quite how fast” decisions must be made.

Second, he expects “initially, it’ll be quite a centralising No. 10”, with Starmer wanting clarity over objectives and responsibility – but then delegating and expecting ministers to deliver.

Thirdly, he claims one LOTO colleague said we’ll have a “great reforming government, not a great spending government”.

There is an “awful lot” possible by reforming regulation rather than nationalisation or spending, like threatening criminal sanctions against water firm directors.

And finally, White argues Labour must be “nine-tenths credibility and one-tenth hope” as hope withour credibility has failed too often. Turning around public services is also a “ten-year project”.

Battle for Welsh Labour leadership

Economy minister Vaughan Gething threw his hat in the ring to lead Welsh Labour yesterday, saying he had backing across the party and that a “united, modern, diverse movement” working with Starmer was key to repairing Tory damage. William Hill has him odds on at 4/5 to replace Mark Drakeford.

Read his pitch here, plus his piece for us earlier this year on how US history shows there’s no social justice without economic justice.

Meanwhile the BBC reports education minister Jeremy Miles has secured enough backers on Friday to earn a place in the race, though he has not confirmed he’ll stand.

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