Prospects for 2013: Ruth Lister

By Jamie

04 January 2013

Continuing our series of short contributions from figures on the left looking to the year ahead, Ruth Lister expects welfare to be at the heart of political struggles around poverty, inequality and social justice during 2013.  

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The recent announcement that the annual increase in most benefits and tax credits will be limited to 1% over the next three years ensures that social security (aka welfare) will be at the heart of political struggles around poverty, inequality and social justice during 2013.  

So far the mainstream political debate has been framed by the now iconic image of the hard-working "strivers" vs. the "skivers" languishing on benefit, as the government once again attempts to pit one group of low income people against another.  Be prepared for a ratcheting up of media stories, often planted by the Department for Work and Pensions, which demonise benefit claimants.  Already Iain Duncan Smith has seen in the New Year by peddling the pernicious and false message that receipt of state financial support spells dependency and fraud, although this time the dividing line is in effect drawn between benefit/tax credit recipients (whether in or out of work) and others.  

This may be because, not surprisingly, Labour has seized on estimates that 60% of the impact of the cut will fall on working households, dubbing it a "strivers' tax".  If the forthcoming debate is pursued purely in these terms, it will further weaken the bonds of solidarity that Labour should be trying to strengthen.  But there is an alternative scenario.  Given the political arithmetic, it's unlikely that the government will be defeated on the Welfare Benefit Uprating Bill (unless Liberal Democrat backbenchers are willing to stand up and be counted).  Labour should therefore use the political battle around the Bill to try to shift the debate on social security on to our terms.  This needs to be done using both defensive arguments that counter the false picture of a life on benefits painted by the Tories and the right wing media and positive arguments that make the case for a decent social security system. 

Research into public attitudes towards social security suggests that they are heavily influenced by the mainstream political debate.  Early polling indicates that Osborne's benefit cuts are not as popular as he expected.  How the battle against them is framed over the coming months could be critical in re-building public support for social security.   

Ruth Lister is a Labour peer, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, Loughborough University and Chair of the Compass Management Committee. 

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