Ed Miliband’s argument is that if he was prime minister, the social security tab would not have risen so sharply in the past few years because there would be less unemployment. Clearly that is not a hypothesis that can be tested.
So the argument will keep coming back to whether Labour should commit to any welfare restraint at all, given that the public (the pollsters keep telling us) are tougher on the benefits issue than in previous years.
Take the issue of child benefit. We interviewed Miliband yesterday (he was in a very confident mood, post-PMQs) and asked him whether Labour would have taken this
away from the wealthy – in line with the coalition’s move.
No, is his answer: The Labour leader has refined his argument that “universal benefits are part of the badge of citizenship”. In other words, no one questions whether the wealthy should get free treatment on the NHS, and if you chip away at that universality you undermine the entire welfare state.
“I think there is a sort of little truth here lurking in this, which I don’t think has properly been exposed, which is probably part of the long-term strategy of the Tory right to undermine the welfare state,” he told us. “They think we need to turn it into a service just for the poorest. And, then, as part of that strategy, we can undermine support for it?”
It’s a seductive argument.
But the logical follow-up to that point is that if Miliband is not prepared to take away universal benefits, a process that involves complex means-testing, then how would he cut the welfare bill? Because the obvious alternative to hitting the wealthier recipients is to take even more from recipients further down the scale, which is anathema to the left. (As Labour proved last week by arguing against the 1 per cent freeze in benefits.)
Miliband’s answer is that he would not cut the rate of any particular benefit: “I don’t want to be cutting benefits, I want to be cutting the benefit bill.” And a successful economy with higher employment is his solution. As if this would have been guaranteed under Labour.
To which I asked: what makes him think that he could find the levers to create growth – against the wider global backdrop – where the coalition has failed?
“That’s what they believed in the 1930s, what you just said. I thought we’d gone beyond that though.”
As for the question of whether Labour would reverse all of the difficult decisions made by the coalition over spending and benefits, the party can only say that it wouldn’t have done it if it was in power now. Labour will not promise to reverse the cuts.
Some may argue that Ed Miliband is therefore taking the easy option of criticism without responsibility. They noticed that David Miliband last week referred in the Commons debate on benefits that he would “accept” the spending envelope for benefits – but wanted to question the priorities chosen by the coalition.
His brother, by contrast, will not even go down that avenue. Whether that will win him votes, or lose them, is hard to answer at this point.