After IDS: Where Labour Goes From Here

By Jade Azim / @JadeFrancesAzim


There are three primary observations to take from Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation, after we have all done with jumping up and down on our beds and popping open a decent Pinot Grigio.

First, that this was not actually about the reforms he championed, but a move in political chess.
Second, Osborne’s leadership hopes just torpedoed.
Third, this still suggests a potential setback for what has been five years of a regressive welfare agenda.

Undoubtedly, Stephen Crabb, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, is very much a yesman. One needs to only look at his predictable voting record to have their elation burst. This does not suddenly mean a change in welfare policy, though thankfully it kills the drastic PIP cuts. For that latter point, we should celebrate. But we -and Owen Smith MP- still have some immense fights on our watch.

What this all does mean is that, finally, we are presented with an opportunity to change the tune on welfare and its place in deficit reduction. You can count me in as one of the many that believed welfare had become so unpopular that defending it in its current form spelt political suicide -that we should consider universalism. I still hold the belief that Labour has an incredible problem with welfare, particularly JSA, but with the architect of the past five years of devestating welfare reform releasing an incredible letter saying it has gone too far? There remains a cautious hope.

A cautious hope that the Tories, finally, have regressed on the modernisation project and have toxified once more. They have truly shot the husky.

We have had five years of budgets wherein welfare cuts have funded tax cuts for the rich, but for the first time in four years -since Omnishambles- a budget has been considered more unfair than fair according to polls. Of course, what happened after Omnishambles is that Labour got cocky and ultimately went on to lose. Veterans of the 2010-15 Parliament will remind you to restrain your triumphalism. The difference with 2016, however, is that after 5 years of brutal cuts, the country has yet to see a reward. It has became obvious, now, that debt and borrowing are higher than ever, and that Osborne -now having to withdraw PIP cuts that were the biggest revenue raiser in the Red Book- will not achieve a surplus without completely changing direction.

One of the tenets of the current direction lambasted -insincerely- by IDS, was the obvious intergenerational unfairness of modern Toryism: the ringfencing of pensions while cutting working-age benefits. Welfare remains unpopular, but so is the now obvious lie that ‘we are all in it together’. We have found our counterbalance.

We should also take heart from IDS reaffirming what our own leadership has been saying: that these welfare cuts are a political choice, not one done in the national interest. That, above all else, needs to be put on leaflets.

Labour should be cautiously optimistic as an anti-austerity party while remaining cautious nonetheless. What we can hope to do, if not cheer for an electoral victory that we must remind ourselves is still very unlikely at this stage, is that the IDS resignation gives us the perfect opportunity to demand in future Autumn Statements and Budgets that Osborne -or whoever the future chancellor may be- refrain from regressive austerity or face backlash -either from the public or their own backbenchers. The Tories found the tipping point. They thought they could cut, cut, cut to their hearts’ content. They were wrong. It has gone too far. We can demand that, if they do not wish to be seen as toxic and unfair, and hand-in-hand with that, incompetent and divided, then they must pursue other ways of tackling the deficit like tax rises for the rich and, most siginficantly, eat into their grey vote by cutting at wealthy pensioners’ benefits.

Because here’s the victory, for us and for the most vulnerable, if we cannot yet claim electoral advancement: a once-normalised austerity has now reached its apex and is starting to grind; is starting to clash with British values of fairness, and is starting to be exposed as an incompetent way to balance the books. On both a moral and an economic basis, it is starting to fail.

If Stephen Crabb wants to continue cuts, that’s fine. We have new ammo to say across the floor, “Look, Tory backbenchers, the leadership have not listened”. And ammo to say to the country, “Look, Britain, they have refused to listen and are still trying and failing to balance the books on the broken backs of the poor. What do we have to show for it?” All the while, as the Tories used Liam Byrne’s infamous letter, we have IDS’s as our own prop, as our own weapon, to ensure this does not go away.

This resignation may have been done with Europe and stabbing Osborne in the back in mind, but it has left a gaping wound in the side of the five year-old welfare agenda. We can cautiously pursue the same lines that IDS has heartily handed us, and we can wave the letter across the despatch box at every Autumn Statement and Budget. And who knows? At a future election Question Time.

In the immediate, it also gives us the chance to open up older wounds, and to refresh the outrage against, importantly, the Bedroom Tax. A new DWP; refreshed demands.

So cheers to IDS, the unlikely anti-austerity hero, and to many future defeats, U-turns, and concessions from the re-toxified Tories.

Jade Azim is editor of Open Labour

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