Controversial. Ed Miliband has indicated he will be taking this LibDem-supported Tory government on over real term cuts to benefits. It's a risky move, but a necessary one for the long-term future of Labour politics.
It's got some folks in a flap. Paid-for right-wing dissenter Dan Hodges says the move typifies EdM's "political immaturity". An immaturity, it has to be said, that has seen consistent healthy poll leads and three recent difficult by-elections in which Labour increased its total vote share. None too shabby. While it's easy to write off Hodges' concerns (let's face it, he'd be painting David as a wild-eyed leftist had the other Miliband won), his argument that the route to power isn't through increased welfare spending is received wisdom shared by many Labour people, not just Blairite Ultras.
It's not difficult to understand why. Apart from the non-stop media onslaught against skivers and scroungers living the high life on unemployment and disability benefits, the very idea someone is skipping work due thanks to your taxes is a powerful one. As I said a little while ago, "it's the very idea that someone, somewhere is living off the backs of your labour without making a useful contribution themselves; that someone is is living a profligate, responsibility-free life while you work to make ends meet and watch every penny you spend. And it's the idea someone is getting away with it while you're being taken for a mug." Welfare is out. Benefit-bashing is in.
As Hodges observes with a sneer, "Miliband is going to try to argue that his stance on welfare is somehow motivated by a desire to stand with “the strivers”. But at the same time as he’s opposing a freeze on welfare, he’s actually advocating a freeze on public sector pay. Is this seriously going to be Miliband’s offer in 2015?" A tricky position to be sure, and one eased by abandoning the current position on the pay freeze. Politically and economically it makes sense to u-turn on this one - the present crisis requires money be put in people's pockets to ameliorate the spiralling cost of living and giving personal consumption a much-needed boost.
But back to the matter at hand. Whether EdM extricates himself from that sticky patch remains to be seen, but opposing welfare cuts is still the right thing to do and isn't necessarily the political own goal Hodges thinks it is. Leaving aside the moral obscenity of denying money to society's very poorest (especially in the context of income and corporation tax cuts for the rich), and the economic case against doing so, EdM's opposition to benefit cuts could represent a breach in the prevailing political order.
When it comes to welfare, Labour can be beastly to benefit recipients - up to a point. We've done a pretty good job of making the lives of the poorest pretty rough too. Ours is the party of the hated Work Capability Assessment and Atos-run assessment centres, though the Conservatives have made these hideous policies very much their own. But ultimately, the Tories and their UKIP mini-me can always undercut Labour in the race to the gutter.
If the right are in disarray, Labour can reap short-term electoral benefits from attacking welfare. And this is how it operated in the Blair years. But when Conservatives are in power they will always outgun Labour in a sanctions arms race. You can either accept that state of affairs - as the Dan Hodges of this world would have us do, (though for strictly pragmatic reasons of course), or try and change the terms of the debate. EdM's opposition could fall in the latter category.
In all likelihood, his attacks on the Tories will focus on the benefits for the in-work. So, the scandal of working people having to top up their wages with tax credits because their pay is too low is a relatively easy way of turning the debate against the Tories. Likewise with housing benefit, Labour's groping toward rent controls is a way of focusing debate on the real reasons for the increasing benefit bill - the unregulated private rental market.
Modest steps, but important steps. It allows us to call these benefits what they really are - subsidies for low wages and buy-to-let. In the cold light of day, who can object to these tax subsidies getting countered by state and social movement activism around living wages and market regulation? The Tories would be all at sea in a welfare debate argued in these terms.
But if you like, these are the easier benefits to argue over. Countering scrounger rhetoric on unemployment and disability is tougher, even though people are forced to depend on them thanks to market failure more than any other reason. But the game of politics is about picking and choosing your battles, and so far EdM has proven himself a rather astute player. Hence instead of victimisation, the two Eds often talk about reducing the benefit bill by fixing the economy. This line is underdeveloped so far, but again is one the government are vulnerable on.
Ultimately, the benefits battle is one Labour cannot duck. The well of resentment around this issue is absolutely toxic. We have to begin the clear up by addressing the real causes and assuaging concerns, not pandering to them. Just as the most compelling argument against violent revolution is the observation you can't build socialism out of a pile of bones; a fairer, tolerant social democratic society cannot arise from a swamp of resentment, bitterness and beggar-my-neighbour. If politics is to change for the better, if this century is to be the Labour Century, fear and spite must be challenged in the strongholds 30 years of neoliberal consensus has built. And it would appear this is something EdM understands.