‘It is unfair for benefits to rise at a faster rate than wages’ – so said the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, ahead of the Commons vote on capping welfare benefits. The need, he confidently asserted, was based on the fact that jobless benefits have risen 20 per cent in the last five years, compared with an average 12 per cent rise in private sector pay. It is clear the Tories have opened up the new year using a language of ‘fairness’ that is designed to recapture the centre-ground voter ahead of the next general election.
This is interesting terrain. Some caution it’s a cynical plot, George Osborne’s attempt at triangulation designed to ensnare Labour into taking a position on welfare reform and benefit cuts that will disillusion middle England voters or alienate their own rank and file who want the party to remake the case for a strong, modern welfare state. However, I think it is significant for another reason.
The catalyst for much of the renewed vocabulary of ‘fairness’ on the right has been the stinging public reaction there has been to the injustices of the economic slowdown. The rage that is felt as banks took billions in government bailouts and then proceeded to rack up enormous bonuses and generous pension settlements as if no error had been committed, shook even the most solidly entrenched free-market evangelist. This was not the way the free market was supposed to work.
Labour’s reaction to the Tories staking out the fairness ground should be positive, ‘Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth!’ The economic tough times have reopened a debate on fairness in which Labour can test the concept as laid out by Duncan Smith and Osborne and expose the limitations their new interest in justice throws up.
It is hollow politics to talk about ‘fairness’ if there is not the commitment to extend the concept to every part of the political debate. Indeed, there was a marked absence of talk about fairness when the coalition scrapped Labour’s incredibly valuable child trust fund policy.
The Tories’ commitment to fairness seems to hit a brick wall when the concept is really opened up and shifted into the debate about the educational attainment of young working class boys; the lack of support for care leavers; or democratising the dense networks of contacts that facilitate access to the best jobs or work experience. More traditional bastions of unfairness loaded away from excluded or low-income groups seems to get less attention from the Tory right.
In Wales Labour took firm action in government to ensure fairness in tough times by developing Jobs Growth Wales which creates job opportunities for unemployed young people and has already achieved its target of creating 4,000 job opportunities this year. The scheme proves that UK Labour was right to press ahead with its jobs guarantee pledge – an outline of a scheme that can work effectively for people when they need support most.
Fairness is a merely framework, no more than that, with which to shape the debate before the next election, but it is one Labour, across the UK, should be keen to fight on. It’s a chance to stake out the ground post-2015, to sketch out what a Labour government would do back in power and to develop an idea of One Nation fairness that is distinctive, bold and transformative.
The good news is that the Tories want to talk about fairness. Labour’s job is to help them open up a bit more.
Ken Skates is Welsh assembly member for Clwyd South. He tweets @KenSkatesAM
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