UK Politics

Could there be cross-party consensus on welfare reform?

Image caption Both the coalition and opposition agree work is the best form of welfare

If there is one policy, aside from tackling the deficit, which senior Tories believe will make or break this government it is welfare reform.

Delivering reform, and making it stick however, may hinge on building a cross-party consensus.

Experience from other countries, and most significantly the United States, suggests that successful reform requires all parties to sign up to it.

Otherwise the political risks are too great and the danger is that a subsequent government simply unpicks everything.

First of all, the Conservative and Lib Dem partners in government must remain united on the pace of reform and what can be achieved.

Their coalition deal agreed to create a single welfare-to-work scheme and refer jobseeker allowance claimants aged under 25 to work programmes much sooner.

It was seen to be driven by Tory priorities, although there is a Lib Dem minister - Steve Webb - in the work and pensions department to act as a voice for his party.

But could Labour back the coalition on welfare?

Well, on the face of it the prospects would seem remote. In recent days, senior Labour figures have repeatedly attacked the coalition's plans as a "return to the Thatcherite 80s".

But when you strip away the rhetoric, the two largest parties are much closer than either might like to admit.

Areas of agreement

In philosophical terms, they both agree that the best form of welfare is work and that those who can work should work.

In policy terms there is also considerable agreement.

Both parties believe in penalising claimants who turn down jobs or training; medical tests for those on incapacity benefit to see what work they can do; making greater use of the private sector to find jobs; and lowering the amount of time lone parents can remain on benefits. They also both oppose time limiting benefits.

Indeed, Labour's plans to move a million people off incapacity benefit are actually more ambitious than those of the coalition.

There are also influential voices in Labour cautioning the party against simply going into opposition mode over welfare.

Others in Labour argue that welfare reform should be a left-wing policy and that there is nothing progressive about leaving millions stuck on benefits.

Others still fear - like over immigration - that the party risks losing touch with its own supporters on the issue.

So consensus may seem unlikely now - but there's much less that divides the parties than many might think.

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