Labour's challenge over welfare reforms

By Rebecca Keating
Political producer, BBC Radio 4

Image caption, Labour have said they will not oppose all the welfare changes being proposed by their opponents

When Prime Minister Clem Attlee took to the airwaves in 1946 to set out plans for a "cradle to grave" welfare system, he told the nation it could be proud that Britain was at the "forefront of social advance".

Since then, the Labour Party's pride in the modern welfare state has been matched by a struggle to implement radical reform.

Even Tony Blair - the most reform-minded of Labour leaders - baulked at comprehensive welfare changes after protesters daubed the gates of Downing Street in blood red paint.

But now, in opposition, it seems Labour may be ready to offer the coalition significant support for its attempt to reshape the system.

"Where there is an approach that we agree with, we'll obviously work with the government," Shadow Work and Pensions Minister Douglas Alexander said.

"We're interested in the proposal for a universal credit and I've said, in principle, of course I support a simpler benefits system and making it easier for people to make the transition from benefits and into work.

"The transition in terms of moving people from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance is a process that was started under Labour but is being continued under the coalition.

"We've made clear in relation to the rules around disability living allowance that that's another area where we think we can work with the government."


Part of the reason for this more co-operative stance is that many of the welfare reforms being promoted by the coalition were actually started, albeit more quietly, by Labour.

"I think it's right to say that many of the so-called radical changes that we're seeing from the government in fact build on things that Labour was doing over many years," backbench Labour MP Kate Green, former chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said.

"The Work Programme moves on from the flexible new deal that we designed.

"Moving people from incapacity benefit to the employment and support allowance are Labour initiatives which the government are taking forward."

But there are still significant disagreements.

Labour MPs remain worried about what is seen as the Tories' more punitive approach and the government's failure to focus on creating jobs.

However, even some old warriors of the left are willing to look at more controversial elements of coalition's drive to get people off benefits.

Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London who has his eye on another term in 2012, supports plans to force people who are unemployed to carry out community work, or risk losing their benefits.

"It doesn't do poor and unemployed people any favours to leave them out of work," Mr Livingstone said.

"If you get people into the habit of getting out of bed, doing something, having a sense of worth and if that involves getting people who are currently unemployed helping out with the elderly or clearing up an area or things like that, I think it's worth doing."

Universal benefits

Even seemingly straightforward issues like defending universal benefits and opposing the cuts to child benefit are far from clear-cut issues for many Labour MPs.

The chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, Anne Begg, has changed her mind on the importance of universal benefits.

"When I got elected in 1997 I thought that perhaps we should do away with universal benefits," she said. "However, as a constituency MP I've realised that people have got to feel they've got some kind of stake in the welfare state."

"But I have to say that what the coalition government is doing is equally confusing, so it's obviously difficult for all political parties. "

There is another reason that Labour is open to finding agreement with the coalition - a sense that it was not as visionary as it could have been in its own efforts to help unemployed people into work.

"I think because they were boom years and although you tended to have areas even in London where there was high unemployment, they were marginal... they took their eye off the ball, yes," Ken Livingstone admits.

"That's why I think Douglas Alexander is striking the right pose, which is not to reject welfare reform out of hand."

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