We Can’t Oppose Everything

LabourWe can’t oppose everything – well we could, and I know that we are ‘The Opposition’ but actually it’s important if we are to be a credible opposition that we actually don’t oppose things based on who brings them forward to the Commons – but actually oppose based on our beliefs and goals as a collective, a party and a movement.

Now the Budget, well it wasn’t as bad as we were expecting.  Osborne, in an unusual move decided to deliver his ‘doom-and-gloom’ budget right before the election followed by one post-election with a tad more hope.  This is in break from tradition where it is normally the other way round.

A core, and controversial (well it always was going to be wasn’t it!), part of the budget was the much debated topic of welfare reform.

Now welfare has become a tricky subject – even more so in difficult financial times.  Well, to be honest welfare has always been difficult – just post financial crisis it’s been probably one of the most difficult and contentious areas of government.

Do I agree with the Tories welfare reforms? No.  Would I put the same reforms in front of the Commons if I was in power?  No.

However, that is not to say that I oppose all of the welfare reforms.

Whether we like it or not, even had there been no financial crisis, I do agree that welfare reform is needed.  We simply can’t carry on in exactly the same way that we have done for a number of years now.  And this isn’t a situation unique to welfare – things change, people changes, society changes, the country changes – and as such, as with all areas of life, things have to develop, be reformed and modernised – please note, no of this necessarily means a cut, although we should always strive to spend taxpayer’s money as efficiently as possible – after all, as a society we work very hard to earn what we earn and pay our taxes.

Labour are in, what could be described, as a little bit of a crisis.

Harriet Harman spoke on the Sunday Politics show and broadly stated that the Labour Party would agree (or at least, not oppose) the welfare reforms – this in itself caused a bit of a split in the parties membership.

Then, three of the four leadership contenders came out and said actually they would oppose the welfare bill – and would encourage others to do so.  Only Liz Kendall has offered some support to the reform.

The question that we, as a party and as a movement have to ask ourselves is, are we opposing the Welfare Bill solely based on our beliefs or partly as to try and stick two fingers up at the Conservative government.

Again, don’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with the package of welfare reforms proposed by the Conservatives.  But if Labour is to become more than an opposition – actually become a credible alternative potential government in waiting by 2020, we need to pick and choose our fights.

With regards to the Tax Credit reforms proposed in the Budget I would have to say that I am broadly against these reforms.  I have always argued that actually, people shouldn’t be entitled to tax credits.  Why?  Because I think it’s time that businesses started paying their staff a Living Wage.  People should earn enough money in the 6th largest economy in the world to be able to live a decent standard of living – without the taxpayer having to top up their salaries.

What started as a safety net, introduced by Gordon Brown, has now turned into a state funded subsidy of UK industry.

When thinking about the welfare bill it is very easy to blame the people in receipt of welfare.  But actually, if you pause for a second, let’s consider this:

UK Business is one of the largest recipients of welfare in Britain today

How is that possible?  Well, because over the years, tax credits have been used as part of the package offered to employees and ensured that certain businesses could offer low paid work rest assured in the fact that the extra money they should really, in reality, be paying their staff will be paid by the UK taxpayer.  These companies aren’t all on their knees – far from it – some of them are the biggest companies in the land, all happy to payout multi-million bonuses to senior executives yet not willing to pay the staff at the bottom something which they could live on, without the help of tax credits.

Having said that, with regards to the future (not retrospective) restrictions on child tax credits placing a limit of two children, after which no further child tax credits will be paid, probably isn’t something we should be opposing.

Controversial opinion?  Maybe.  There are many reasons why people receive tax credits, and most are down to things outside of an individuals control – such as low pay or disability.  However, we all have a choice about how many children we have.

Do I think it should be retrospective?  Absolutely not – it isn’t fair to move the goalposts.

But if a family with two parents, each working and earning an average UK salary – or even slightly below average salary, have to consider whether they can afford to have a third child – and only do so if they can – I think it is more than fair that other hard working people have to do this also.

Should there be exceptions – yes, of course.  Blanket policies with no exceptions tend to be unfair.  For example, in the event of multiple births, these should be covered by allowing the extra child tax credits that would usually not be available in the case of separate births.

However, the one key thing, that in my opinion should (and must) go hand in hand with any reform of the tax credits system is a re-balancing of society so that everyone is paid a fair wage – a living wage.

George Osborne’s plans regarding the ‘National Living Wage’ (actually, it’s not what he says it is – it’s actually an increase in the National Minimum Wage) simply aren’t enough.

We need to implement a true National Living Wage – admittedly, this would need to be staged in – we can’t just hike it in one go and expect business to keep on growing, running and the economy moving in the right direction (we need to be fair and give business time to adapt). This is the main reason why we can’t afford to delay the implementation of a true Living Wage.

That’s why the only hope for a progressive society where work really does pay would be to implement the National Living Wage between now at 2020, in increments, and from thereon-in tie the National Living Wage (a new minimum) to the recommendations of the Living Wage Foundation.