John Mann’s Progress article “Time for Labour to get real”, in which he states that “It is about time we got real about the world around us” is typically blunt. It’s also straight forward common sense; and, it would seem, heresy.
“Tabloid candy” says one critic. A “kick in the teeth” for the poor, says another. “Shame on you” screams a third. Oh, and let’s not forget that old canard: a “Blairite” conspiracy (despite the fact that Ed Miliband has stated publicly that Labour supports a cap).
Now being in favour of a cap but still managing to vote against it in Parliament isn’t helpful, but it at least starts from the right place: a recognition that, as Mario Dunn has put it (in the comments section attached to the original post), many people “feel a burning injustice…when they see those around them live better lives but do nothing to earn the income they get”.
When 72% of the public support the cap, we need to ask ourselves why we think they’re all wrong and why we’re the ones who are right. Critics of the cap seem only concerned to place us and themselves in the shoes of those who will be affected by this. Yes, a cap will require some benefit claimants to move if they are unable to secure cheaper privately rented accommodation in central London. But, for years this has been the reality for thousands in work, forced to move to cheaper places to live because they couldn’t afford to buy or rent the bigger accommodation they needed in the area. Their children moved to new schools; they took on longer journey times to work; and they found themselves further away from established social and familial networks. Unlike George Osborne, we need to mean it when we say that “we are all in this together”.
And we shouldn’t dismiss these people as affluent surburbanites, undeserving of nor needing our support; many of them earn on or around (and often less than) the £26,000 level at which the cap has been set.
Liam Byrne is on the record as supporting a regional benefit cap, although he won’t be pressed into setting out what the levels would be, preferring instead to push this out to an independent commission. That helps him sidestep media questioning such as this about what these levels will be (and whether in London it will be higher than the Government’s £26,000 cap); but it allows our opponents to present our support for a cap as shallow and lukewarm. If Labour MPs are to vote in parliament against the cap, then we really do need to be able to say what we think the level should be.
While Mann is right to highlight the long term problem of a London-centric focus to policy making in the party (in and out of Government), he’s off the mark on the issue of private sector housing in the capital. For too long the higher costs of living in London and the south east have been ignored by successive government. It continues to puzzle me why Labour isn’t talking more about building council homes – the only logical response if we want to support a cap in London, minimise the impact in communities and avoid our capital becoming like Paris.
Being “on the side of hard working families” needs to be more than just a sound bite or rhetorical flourish to be deployed in attacks on Coalition policies. It means standing up for fairness for all taxpayers. If Labour isn’t able to demonstrate to these voters that “we get it”, that we understand why they think it is unfair for families out of work to take home more than families in work, then as John Mann concludes, “we have got our approach dangerously wrong”.
Stuart King is Editor of Southern Front