It didn’t last long. The cheering had barely died down after Liam Byrne’s removal as Labour DWP spokesman when along comes his successor, Rachel Reeves, apparently using much of the same rhetoric. It wasn’t that she didn’t have important points to make – about the fact that Tory austerity has contributed massively to the overall benefits bill, and about Labour’s jobs guarantee scheme. But once gain there was a slip into the old bad rhetoric with a reference to not allowing people to “linger on benefits” – the phrase that has, inevitably, been picked up by the media and conflated with a line about being “tougher than the Tories” on the cost of benefits.
The comments have caused some fury in Labour circles, especially in the context of the change in language heralded by the recent Labour Party conference. Others pointed out that, yet again, the Tories were being allowed to dictate the terms of the debate and that to frame the issues in this way – and it is difficult to believe that the Labour high command did not realise how the comments would be interpreted – did Labour more harm than good.
To understand the failures of logic inherent in Reeves’ comments, it is worth unpicking some of the rhetoric a bit. By fat the largest claim on the Social Security budget is made by a group that nobody – beyond a fringe of ideologues posing as “thinkers of the unthinkable” – believes should be made to work: pensioners. Of course not, the narrative goes; they have worked all their lives and paid their taxes and National Insurance for their state pensions. But the same is true of many unemployed people; they have become unemployed, after many years of work and of making contributions, as a result of economic circumstances over which they have no control.
The logic disintegrates further when you start to unpack the idea of “national insurance” – a principle that Beveridge enshrined but actually goes back to long before the Beveridge report. Insurance is about spreading and managing risk – and in an age when job insecurity is endemic, and we are being told that we must be prepared to deal with the effects of a rapidly changing economy, the need to manage risk collectively becomes ever more important. And that means moving away from the idea that your entitlement is down to how long you have been paying in – national insurance is a long-term game. A motor insurance company that told its customers it wouldn’t pay out to policy-holders of less than two years’ standing would not get many customers; the principle with national insurance is fundamentally the same.
And the real problem with Rachel Reeves’ rhetoric is that it betrays a failure to understand the collective provision of insurance, focussing instead on what is a relatively small problem of what I suppose one should call “fecklessness” and uses those few cases of individual failing to drive a policy that aims to deal with a collective failure. Nobody denies that these people exist; it’s just that in the world of evidence and reality, as distinct from ideology and tabloid fantasy, there aren’t very many of them. And the point about the insurance principle is its inherent fairness. At a time when real incomes are falling and people are becoming less secure, it still represents the best and fairest way of sharing risk.
So instead of mirroring tabloid rhetoric – and allowing a small problem to drive its policy and language in dealing with a much larger one – Labour should be seeking to reframe this debate in the name of evidence and fairness. And restating the insurance principle is pretty congruent with what looks like becoming one of the essential principles of what one might call Milibandism; the idea that it is right and proper for a strong and enabling state to intervene in failing markets for the common good. At a time when there is growing evidence that Labour is learning to frame the political debate a much more proactive approach is needed.