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Coffee House

Why announcing a tough new welfare policy isn’t as tough as it seems for Rachel Reeves

20 January 2014

8:52 AM

20 January 2014

8:52 AM

Rachel Reeves is setting out Labour’s tough new benefits policy today. The Tories don’t need to be unduly worried, given the poll lead they enjoy on welfare matters, but just in case, Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa May have penned a joint op-ed in the Daily Mail accusing Labour of a ‘shameful betrayal’ on welfare reform and controlling immigration. They list the party’s failures in government, saying:

‘With one hand, Labour doled out millions of pounds for people to sit on benefits. With the other, they opened the door to mass migration, with those from abroad filling jobs which our own people didn’t want or couldn’t get.’

Conservative spinners, meanwhile, are explaining in some detail that their own benefits proposals are much tougher than anything Reeves will set out today, pointing out that George Osborne’s ‘earn or learn’ policy begins from the first day of a young person claiming Jobseekers Allowance.

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But what is interesting is not just the preparation that has come before this announcement (I’ve explained previously just how much consultation Ed Miliband has to do on these announcements to square his party), but the way the party has handled attacks on the idea itself. When Liam Byrne previously announced ‘tough’ welfare policies that went down like a lead ballon with activists and MPs on the left of the party, it would be the shadow welfare secretary himself who faced the wrath – and he ultimately paid for this with his job. But now Reeves, who is not a Blairite but a Milibandite, has been appointed, the effort seems to be as much about protecting her as it is the policy. So there is still the softly-softly briefing of Labour blogs, along with stories that sound much tougher appearing in papers such as The Sun (which is an amusing policy as it seems to assume that Labour activists only read Labour blogs and don’t even touch newspapers with right-wing sympathies).

But whenever the story has spun out of control, as it did with the Telegraph’s suggestion that Reeves was interested in a report by IPPR which proposed stripping young people of their benefits if they were not in training or seriously looking for work, the briefing has gone outwards, rather than inwards. One Labour observer remarks that the party ‘sh** all over the IPPR report, which they must have been thrilled by’. The Reeves policy is instead a ‘Basic Skills Test’, under which all new jobseekers will take an assessment of basic maths, English and IT skills. If they do not have the necessary skills, they will be forced to take up training as they look for work, or they will lose their benefits. She will also reiterate the party’s earlier commitment to its Compulsory Jobs Guarantee, which means that a young person out for more than a year must take up a guaranteed offer of work or lose their benefits. So it is a much narrower policy than the IPPR one, but it’s still enough to upset some on the Left. But this time, the new Milibandite shadow minister seems to be assured of her boss’s protection, which is more than can be said for her Blairite predecessor. The same goes for Tristram Hunt, who might make the same announcements that his predecessor Stephen Twigg made as Shadow Education Secretary, but with the blessing of his party leader. It’s tough announcing a tough new policy, but less so when you know that your leader has got your back.

Here’s Rachel Reeves on the Today programme this morning announcing Labour’s plans for ‘Basic Skills Tests’ for benefits claimants:-

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