As you all know, I was devastated to learn there would be a shadow DWP reshuffle. Most of you disagreed, sure that nothing could be worse than Liam Byrne.
But did you know we are now on our 3rd Labour DWP team now? Oh yes, before there was Liam Byrne, there was Douglas Alexander, a brief and disasterous union. You can see my responses to their first forays into welfare media here http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/take-time-to-listen-and-learn-douglas.html and here http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/so-its-welfare-reform-on-agenda-today.html
But I'm sick and I'm tired. I'm exhausted and so are the legions of welfare warriors who have attempted to spread truth where there is dishonesty and compassion where there is cruelty. There simply isn't time to go through the same well worn stages of misapprehension and mistakes all over again before the 2015 election.
So here, I will attempt to fast forward through the mistakes and betrayals, the misconceptions and the common beliefs in the desperate hope that we can avoid making all the same mistakes AGAIN and just move forward with policy that will not lose us the next general election.
First, the new team will believe that talking tough on welfare will reverse the mistaken public belief that Labour are "soft on scroungers". Oh, the detail might be fine. If you remove your pressure valve and read Rachel Reeves article yesterday dispassionately, there is quite a lot that was good in it. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/oct/12/labour-benefits-tories-labour-rachel-reeves-welfare But the tone is all wrong. Let me give you an example. The "jobs guarantee"
Here's what Rachel said : "under Labour the long-term unemployed would not be able to "linger on benefits" for long periods but would have to take up a guaranteed job offer or lose their state support. "Nobody should be under any illusions that they are going to be able to live a life on benefits under a Labour government," she said. "If you can work you should be working, and under our compulsory jobs guarantee if you refuse that job you forgo your benefits, and that is really important."
Now, she could have said "By cutting back on tax relief for 6 figure pensions, we will ensure that everyone who has been out of work for 2 years or more is guaranteed a paid job at at least minimum wage. We care about long term unemployment and we will never return to growth unless we tackle this issue. Only those who refuse appropriate paid work will lose their benefits" (Note "appropriate, immediately reassuring all those with disabilities that they won't be forced into slave labour they are too unwell to manage)
You see? Exactly the same policy, totally different approach.
The first tries to out-Tory the Tories, be harder, talk tougher. This way, so the perceived wisdom goes, is the right approach. But it isn't and we can accept that today or wait 6 months, maybe a year. But in the end, Ms Reeves will accept it, just as Liam Byrne finally had. I have some sympathy - every IPPR/Demos/Policy Exchange/Pollster assures new ministers that this is true, but it isn't.
You see, welfare polling is nowhere near as simple as it first seems. People want "tough" from the Conservatives. They believe it and accept it. But they don't want it from Labour. They don't believe it and "hedging" the message just makes us sound unstrustworthy.
"But welfare polling is appalling!" I hear you say. Yes, yes it is. There is no question. But the "opinions" are based on lies. Lies fed to the public by both Labour and Tory governments for way too long now. Sure, this is unfortunate for Labour, but there is only one way it will ever change. And that is challenging the myths and breaking the political consensus. So do we re-introduce hanging just because the majority of the public say they want it? Of course not.
And crucially, how much does it matter? Do people vote in a general election based on welfare policy? No. Emphatically no. In the You Gov tracker on the issues most important to voters, welfare doesn't even figure. Even amongst UKIP voters, it is only the 4th most important issue behind the economy, immigration and Europe. So do Labour plan an election strategy based on their weaknesses or their strengths?
Well of course the answer is their strengths. The NHS, education, living standards and justice. Labour only win elections when those issues are front and centre.
But does that mean we don't challenge the Tories at all on welfare? Absolutely not. But it has to be done incredibly carefully and sensitively, with genuine knowledge of the issues.
Here's another example. If I said "The coalition have limited sickness benefits to one year" that wouldn't be true. Instead I have to use this incredibly cumbersome sentence : "The coalition have limited sickness benefits to one year, but only for those who paid into the system or those who have working partners. This policy only punishes those who have "contributed" all their lives. Those who are judged to be too sick to ever work are not affected."
Without all of those caveats, we play IDS game of ignorance. But the caveats are vital. In every welfare phrase, there are caveats. Caveats that protext the most sick or the most disabled or the most unfortunate. You need to learn them all from the start.
People DON'T want people with disabilities to suffer. Poll after poll confirms this. Just 11% want to see disability benefits cut. Yet this government are cutting them by at least 20%. That's 1 in every 5 people with profound disabilities losing everything.
People DON'T believe that parents of young children should be forced to work. The DON'T believe that pensions are even benefits at all. There are plenty of "welfare" areas that a Labour government can challenge on successfully. If I ask people "Do you want your hard earned tax money supporting scroungers" of course they will reply "NO!" with passion. If I ask "Is there anyone you worry for under the governmnet's welfare reforms" the answer is totally different. We must personalise at every step.
But the most fruitful is Tory incompetence. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/05/what-were-welfare-reforms-about Every single welfare "reform" is in chaos. Universal Credit, PIP, ESA, the Work Programme, the Bedroom Tax - it's an absolute disaster and at least one of these will blow up spectacularly in the government's face before 2015. Probably all of them. They have failed totally and utterly and all that has happened is the benefit bill has risen not fallen. As I describe in much more detail here http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/advice-for-labour-on-welfare.html we MUST take the fight to the Tories with passion and belief. They've failed and we have about 18 months left to show the public how badly.
So when an interviewer asks "Do you support the overall benefit cap" the answer is "Not if it forces 200,000 families from their homes and costs more than it saves". When they say "Ahhh, but so many are festering on benefits long term" you reply that in fact "Long term unemployment is just a tenth of 1% of total government spending. That's one person in every thousand! - hardly the most important issue facing Britain today." If we don't challenge these myths no-one will and the public will of course stay exactly where they are.
Campaigners have shown repeatedly that public opinion is not set in stone. The Bedroom Tax seemed like a jolly good plan until we repeated endlessly that 400,000 of the 600,000 affected had disabilities, that there simply weren't the homes to move to. PIP was going swimmingly until sick and disabled people pointed out that 4 x Glastonbury crowds would lose the support they relied on to leave their homes or get dressed and feed themselves. Suddenly the government delayed the bulk of the rollout until after 2015, terrified of endless media stories of people with profound disabilities forced into starvation and isolation.
But we shouldn't be doing this alone. Even when it might not be an obvious "vote winner" an opposition party owes it to the public to speak truth to power. A Labour opposition particularly has the responsibility to do what is right, not always just what seems popular at the time. We are best when we do this. Sadly, think tanks and academics and advisors will be convinced that that means losing votes. We don't have 18 months to convince the new team this is wrong.
There are more misconceptions - that social media is not representative of "ordinary core voters". As Liam Byrne found over the workfare debacle and many, many other faux pas, it is and it often matters greatly. After 4 days of sustained horror, thousands of lost votes and mainstream coverage springing directly from the online outrage, he finally realised that this just wasn't the way to go. Those that had begun to dare believe Labour could change, were horrified all over again. Delicate trust that had built was demolished and there are only so many times you can get it back.
Rachael Reeves will almost certainly get a few chances to get this right. But only a few. It won't take long before activists and members up and down the country decide she's just "Liam Byrne with hair" (as one particularly funny tweet put it yeterday) and then it won't matter how far she travels, how good she gets, how accomplished at her brief, no-one will hear a word she says any more. Just as they didn't with Byrne. Even when he got it right, no-one heard him and when he got it wrong they spread it across all media like a virus.
After realising how disastrous it is to write Daily Mail Articles for the Guardian, the next step (as Byrne could confirm) is trying to write fluffy bunny articles for the Guardian and save the Daily Mail articles for the Daily Mail. That doesn't work either. The same people mistrust us, but now they have proof we really ARE double dealing - "Look they say one thing here and another there" No no no.
Here's another myth "People have lost faith in the welfare state. Therefore we need to talk tougher and means test as many things as we can. They don't want people getting something for nothing". This is completely wrong too. They may well have lost faith in the welfare state, but as we see around the world, the countries who get tougher and tougher and crack down hardest, lose more and more support for social security (see the US as the Granddaddy of examples here) The countries with the most generous welfare settlements (See Norway and Iceland) have the highest level of public support.
Means tested benefits are generally hated, universal benefits generally loved. So Disability Living Allowance which ISN'T means tested, is a very popular benefit, Employment Support Allowance which IS means tested is hated and considered to be where all the scroungers lurk. Pensions are universal and everyone adores them - no politician dares to cut them. Jobseekers allowance is means tested and everyone hates it, though anyone can lose their job at any time. Child benefit until recently was non-means tested and no-one ever thought to question receiving it. Ditto maternity or paternity leave. Personally, I have some sympathy for means testing at times, but don't let anyone tell you it's what the public wants. They might say they do but the reality is totally different.
Yet another step will almost certainly be "saying the right thing in public, then shafting us horribly and quietly behind the scenes" (we're back to the dreadful workfare case again) People WILL notice, they WILL hate you for it and you WON'T get away with it. We live in a world of 24 information freely available to all. There will ALWAYS be an eagle eyed blogger or campaigner who notices you changed the wording/made a dodgy deal/went back on your word etc.
So. Let's start from the best place we can. If you must talk about welfare never say welfare. Say "social security". If you must talk about social security, talk about the horrors facing people with disabilities, or people desperately searching for work when there are no jobs. Talk about how pensions give us faith in the system and most of all, never open your mouths without reminding the public of the latest Tory "welfare" failure. Over and over and over in a loop, so that there is no-one left who believes the Tories are really doing what they say they're doing, but in fact are simply hurting YOUR Mum or YOUR Dad, YOUR brother or child.
And remember. In 97 we won on the NHS. We won because people finally understood that Conservative policies only ever lead to a broken and hopeless Britain. We won on education and compassion and the minimum wage. We won because people believed we would make their lives better. We didn't win by promising to hate the hated and hurt the suffering. We never will. The Tories might, because that's what they do, but we never will.
By 2015 the sheer numbers involved in this attack on ordinary lives will be the NHS 97 equivalent. Everyone will know someone who has been hurt by these "reforms" An elderly relative left in their own filth for want of care. A friend with cancer who worked for 30 years told she's not entitled to sickness or disability support. A child refused the education they need, a colleague made homeless by the bedroom tax. Even a boss earning plenty who lost his child benefit and had to give up his golf holiday - it all counts. Social Security is for all not just for "scroungers"
We have no choice. We have to get this right NOW. Not next month and certainly not next year. As I'm sure Liam Byrne will gladly confirm. If not, we will be torn apart by our own, already reticent to trust us and return to the ballot box in 2015. We will be torn apart by a Tory press who know we'll never be Iain Duncan-Smith (Why oh why would we ever want to be???) and we'll be torn apart by floating voters who don't really give a damn what we say about "welfare" as long as they worry about putting food on the table, keeping a roof over their heads or getting the kids new school shoes.
It's a lose lose. Actually, it's a lose, lose, lose, lose, lose. And it doesn't have to be that way. But it means trusting the people who really know, who are living through the hell. The few experts who can bust any myth for you, counter every nasty Tory swipe at compassion.
And most of all it means realising that everything you thought you knew was wrong and you only have a few short weeks to get it right.
This isn't about "them" it's about "us" - every last person in the country with a child, every last pensioner, every last person living with an illness or disability and we simply can't afford to get it wrong again. We don't have time.