Ben Winter looks at the potential implications of the on-going tussle over tax credits and ponders whether this is the real start of the Corbyn leadership.
“You’re about to cut tax credits when you promised you wouldn’t. I work bloody hard for my money, to provide for my children, to give them everything they’ve got, and you’re going to take it away from me and them. Shame on you!”
If you have a Twitter account, or indeed read any left leaning publication over the weekend, the likelihood is that you would have seen the emotive clip from Thursday night’s Question Time where a member of the audience challenged Amber Rudd on the Government’s plans to cut her tax credits. In the way that only social media can achieve, the clip galvanised a passionate outcry – a reaction that could provide a timely shot in the arm for Labour.
The Government is struggling to defend itself against criticisms that it is simply penalising working people by cutting tax credits. This was typified in last week’s PMQs when Corbyn used four of his questions to challenge the Prime Minister on the issue. The Conservatives have yet to find an effective response and Corbyn, just as Harman did in her brief time at the dispatch box, will know he has found the soft underbelly of what is otherwise a battle-hardened, well versed and confident David Cameron.
More importantly however, this episode has brought the issue of tax credits to life in ways that Jeremy Corbyn’s case studies from dispatch box cannot. Yes, hearing questions from Stephanie in Coventry or Bill in Doncaster is a refreshing way of holding the government to account, but Thursday night’s clip from Question Time goes so much further. To see a woman who voted Conservative at the last election quivering with anger and on the brink of tears on national television has the potential to bring the Labour party and its members together over an issue that unites both wings of the Party. A chance that the militant left is determined to squander, however, as the next day saw the nastier element of Corbyn’s supporters rear their ugly heads on – you guessed it – social media: instead of showing solidarity, many chose to criticise her for voting Conservative in the first place. This was hugely counterproductive, for this group – whether in the minority or not – should recognise this as an excellent opportunity to extend a hand of friendship to the centre ground.
The new Labour leadership could use this episode to kick-start an effective opposition, but it needs to unite behind a single message – something it has struggled to do because of its disdain for ‘spin’. It needs to remember that where the party has been successful in challenging unpopular Conservative policies in the past, it has done so with a single, united message. Think of the united message in defiance of the ‘Poll Tax’, and, to a lesser extent, rebranding the Spare Room Subsidy as the ‘Bedroom Tax’. ‘Working Penalty’ is already emerging as the leading alias in this case, but if Labour is to use this as a line to undermine the Conservatives then Shadow Ministers will need to a) demand the attention of the electorate and b) stay on message – something which their counterparts in Government are much better known for.