Despite promises to be ‘tougher than the Tories’ with regards the welfare bill, shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves MP was today batting away headlines suggesting that Labour was considering plans to scrap benefits for the under-25s.
Reeves’s insistence that neither she, nor the party, support a worthwhile report from the influential, left-of-centre think tank, the IPPR, should raise concern. Not least because the IPPR raised similar points to those of the Prime Minister in his speech at this year’s party conference. In it he outlined plans for an ‘earn or learn’ scheme and recommended that young people are taken out of the welfare system altogether.
This is disappointing from a Labour Party that has committed itself to helping the one million young unemployed into work. So far, they have failed to offer any credible alternative to popular Tory welfare reforms and there is an obvious disconnect between political peacocking and coherent policy action.
This is a real shame. It would be a huge let-down if Reeves’s appointment did not lead to an energetic rethink of Labour’s jobs policy – and, as a campaigner for the young unemployed, my worry is that the under-25s can only expect more of the same inertia from the Labour Party on the issues that matter to them.
Based on a detailed assessment of Denmark and the Netherlands, where youth unemployment rates are less than half that of the UK, the IPPR rightly call for a rebalancing of our welfare system. Young people must be prevented from falling in to the benefits trap, so that later on they will not need to be rescued from it. By ensuring that school leavers take a job or start training, nobody will be cut adrift at 18 years old.
The vast majority of people – from the left and right, from business and the voluntary sector – know this is the best thing to do. It is the way to end our structural unemployment problem, revitalise communities and guarantee sustainable economic prosperity. The policy works and the politics stack up too.
The Tories realise this and have seized the initiative on welfare reform. By continuing with this fruitful strategy, they collect gold stars from card-carrying Conservatives and target voters alike. Cameron’s ‘earn or learn’ scheme would simultaneously tackle youth unemployment (a ‘soft’ Tory issue that matters to both young people and baby boomers) as well as cutting the benefits bill and trimming back the welfare state (a ‘tough’ Tory issue).
By getting behind this new wave of welfare reform, Labour would feel the electoral advantage, steal the Conservatives’ electoral trump card and leave Tory strategists deflated. Most importantly, though, they would be honouring their commitment to help the one million young unemployed.
The Tories have an open goal now. They must use the Autumn Statement to build on ‘earn or learn’ and fix this toxic issue once and for all.
Lottie Dexter is Director of Million Jobs
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