The Conservative party’s Manchester conference – the last before a general election next year – is intended to convey a sense of business-like focus. As one official put it: “We haven’t come here to drink champagne.” Yet the mood does lack fizz. Given the Tories’ likely re-ascent to power next year, the party’s new proposals on welfare reform were announced to a conference hall with a surprisingly large number of empty seats.
Monday’s announcement was meant to brand the Conservatives as the party of jobs and work, and to paint Labour as the party that dragged Britain into recession. This is not a straightforward sell: the Tories opposed fiscal stimulus. A hard line on benefit reform is designed to help them square this awkward circle.
Talking tough on welfare also helps the party’s short-term media skirmishing. As an act of blunt news management, it helps shift attention away from the party’s embarrassing paralysis on Europe. The leadership has still not set out what it would do if, as is now likely, the Lisbon treaty is in force by the time of the next election.
So, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is more lofty rhetoric than sweeping reform in this latest package. The new brooms the Conservatives plan to introduce would, in truth, mostly be souped-up versions of the government’s current tools. This is not a coincidence. Lord Freud, the Tory shadow welfare reform minister, was an adviser to the Labour government.
Both main parties now agree on the need for increased private sector involvement in the process of getting the unemployed back to work, payment-by-results for these welfare providers and reassessment of the UK’s large stock of disability benefit claimants.
But there are substantive difference between the two visions. The Tories want to move faster than the government – and they are right to do so. They propose pushing more people through these systems more rapidly and adopting these policies immediately. There is great merit to this ambition: welfare reform has long lost out to politically sexier causes.
The problem is how they will be able to achieve this as they start to close a 12 per cent fiscal deficit. Private sector involvement in welfare delivery has had mixed results. The industry has big capacity constraints to overcome and reform will have large up-front costs. As with their education policy, the Tories are facing in the right direction. But it remains unclear how they can afford to make their plans work.
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