I was pretty dismayed yesterday at the way the Times interpreted Nick Clegg’s article about welfare reform, as if he had become a born-again slasher of people’s life support systems. We are in danger of allowing Nick to be portrayed as a hate figure on the left. The baying of the audience in Sheffield during Any Questions last week was not just unpleasant, it was a little frightening.
Read the article properly and it is clear that, far from taking the Osborne side in the struggle with Iain Duncan-Smith, Nick seems to be saying that benefits reform needs to create a new system that can change people’s lives. Duncan-Smith says that might need investment up front, and he’s quite right.
These are really important issues. So much of Labour’s approach to services has been to trap people in dependency. That applies as much to those suffering from chronic health problems who are maintained with their problems with expensive drugs. It applies to addicts who are simply maintained in their addiction at huge social cost.
It also clearly applies to those people who are simply maintained for decades on benefits, depending on one of the most dysfunctional government services for almost everything, and banned from most kind of useful activity because they have to be ‘available for work’.
This kind of Fabian approach to welfare is corrosive and bitterly divisive. It is also inhuman. I don’t know clearly what the Liberal approach ought to look like, though I’ve got some ideas, but at least Nick is raising the key questions.
His article is as much a shot across Osborne’s bows as it is supporting existing policy. The idea that we can simply slice £4bn off benefits and leave the reform at that is absolutely ludicrous (as if New Labour doled out money to anyone who asked). It was thoughtful and therefore exciting. It deserves to be read.