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Labour Will Never Out-Tough Tories on Benefits and Shouldn't Try

06/06/2013 16:39 BST | Updated 06/08/2013 10:12 BST

There were some things to welcome in what Ed Miliband said on Thursday. With 1.8million families on council house waiting lists and 300,000 construction workers unemployed, we desperately need investment in housing.

Tory housing policy in the 1980s led to 1.7million council homes being sold off and the abolition of rent controls - something that Miliband's New Labour predecessors failed to address in 13 years in government.

Now, while a third of housing benefit claimants rent in the private sector, almost 70% of the highest housing benefit claims go into the pockets of private sector landlords.

A massive programme of council housing, putting construction workers back to work and paying taxes - with the knock-on effect down the supply chain, providing employment for plumbers, electricians and other tradespeople - would reduce the housing benefit bill, bring down rents and help our ailing economy.

With 93% of new housing benefit claims in the last two years coming from households in which at least one person works, we clearly need to tackle the blight of low pay. And, with it, the state subsidy of low-paying employers that inflates the bill for tax credits.

Which is why it is welcome to hear Miliband talk about a living wage. The unions will gladly help Labour campaign hard for this.

As Miliband pointed out, these issues are all core Labour values. So far, so supportable - even more so if he were to link the fight against low pay with a strengthening of trade union rights, as our efforts are hampered by the most restrictive labour laws in Europe.

The problem I, and many others, have is that he and his party still appear terrified of making the case from this position.

Yes, people's faith in the social security system has been "shaken". But not through any assessment of the facts; through the spin and myths peddled by the Tories and their friends in the right wing press. Why not shout this from the rooftops?

I have challenged Iain Duncan Smith to publicly prove that anyone is better off on benefits than they would be in work. He hasn't yet taken up that challenge because he can't.

I was on the BBC's Daily Politics programme earlier today and watched the presenter Andrew Neil skewer Duncan Smith's shadow - or "mini me" - Liam Byrne over their, as yet unclear, plan to "cap" welfare spending. There is simply no need for Labour to talk about a cap, or to parrot the government's misleading and divisive "something for nothing" rhetoric.

Labour should be offering a clear and radical alternative to Tory despair and division. An alternative that inspires people to believe a Labour government could and will repair the serious damage being done to our communities and our economy by the Tory ideologues.

Labour will never out-tough the Tories on benefits and they shouldn't try. Not just because, as a political strategy, it is naive, but because it is plain wrong.

We do not want to hear that austerity is inevitable, that "there will be less money around". We want to hear that austerity has been a catastrophically damaging political project, about which even the International Monetary Fund is having reservations, and that there is an alternative.

Miliband and Labour have the potential for offering hope over despair, but they will not win the argument if they don't break out of the Tory mould.