When he got up to make his speech last week, Ed Miliband’s plan was clear: change the narrative around Labour’s position on welfare and get his party back on the front foot. He has worked to shift people’s perception of Labour on other key issues like immigration – by admitting that his party made mistakes in Government – but has found that on welfare it’s the Conservative narrative that Labour isn’t committed to spending restraint that resonates with the electorate.
Almost a week on, that narrative hasn’t changed. The Prime Minister relentlessly pushed Miliband on the detail of his welfare plans at PMQs, arguing that the Labour leader wants to appear tough on spending but is not able to confirm where the cuts would fall. Part of Miliband’s problem is that in getting tough he opens himself up to questions about current policy: would he reverse the ‘Bedroom Tax’ for example? At the moment he still can’t say, and that problem is not going to disappear overnight.
But the struggle Miliband faced in the chamber, and the less than favourable reception from some parts of the media, should not distract from the fact that this is a sizeable shift in policy. In December Miliband said that he would “wage war on George Osborne on benefit cuts”. But that has changed dramatically: to a promise that Labour will introduce its own benefits cap, stick to Tory benefit levels through the election campaign into 2015/2016, and could limit access to benefits by introducing a contributory principle, based on what people have paid in.
Moreover, this was a speech that could have been written by Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Liam Byrne. Byrne is not popular with Labour traditionalists, but his approach to welfare is far more realistic, and likely to be far more popular, than Labour’s previous position. With time, this policy shift could prove to have a huge impact on the 2015 election, but that will – at least in part – rely on Labour overcoming another problem with public perception: the question of whether or not they are economically competent.