MPs on all sides of the Commons have piled into the Tories – and particularly George Osborne – over the party’s developing narrative of “shirkers vs workers” (or if you like “skivers vs strivers”).
Sarah Wollaston, the Tory MP, was one of the first from her side to speak out against the kind of image seen in one of her party’s latest campaigns, which depicts an unemployed person slumped on a sofa, apparently unwilling to work. She told the Commons:
The tone of this debate is very important and we should not talk about ‘shirkers’ in this debate.
Her words were welcomed by Liam Byrne, who was responding for Labour. But it is worth asking why the Tories are using such language – they clearly believe it is electorally successful (despite some concerns among their upper echelons), and they are backed up by the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey.
That survey found that voters are becoming increasingly hostile towards benefits and those who claim them – a shift never before seen in a recession. Part of the reason for that appears to be the collapse of the post-war social consensus during the 1980s. But could part of it also be down to years of aggressive rhetoric by the previous Labour government?
It is certainly true that the terms are not new: they have been used several times over the past two years by Liam Byrne – the same Liam Byrne who criticised the tone of the debate today.
In 2011, Byrne told the Labour conference:
Many people on the doorstep at the last election felt that too often we were for shirkers not workers.
Perhaps Byrne can defend this by saying he was referring merely to the impression formed by voters. But how can he defend the kind of language apparently used by his adviser in media briefings afterwards? The Mail on Sunday reported an ally of Byrne saying:
Decent Labour voters see their neighbours lie about all day and get benefits while they are working their socks off, and say, ‘Why should I vote Labour when they let this happen?’
And he’s done it since. He told the LSE a year ago:
Labour is the party of hard workers not free-riders. The clue is in the name. We are the Labour party. The party that said that idleness is an evil. The party of workers, not shirkers.
Labour, Tory and Lib Dem backbenchers are making principled objections to the tone of the welfare debate. Liam Byrne appears not to be.