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Labour Goes Back to the New as It Panders to Benefit Haters

20/06/2014 12:46 BST | Updated 19/08/2014 10:59 BST

Ed Miliband has announced a key piece of policy for the next election - and has lurched back to the days of New Labour.

In an attempt to appeal to 'middle ground swing voters' - politician-speak for Daily Mail readers who live in marginal constituencies - the party will take benefits away from all those aged 21 or under who have lower level skills unless they undertake training.

This means young people with A levels will be allowed to keep existing benefits when those who have completed a level 2 apprenticeship won't, a strange piece of decision making from the party of the working class.

Those youngsters who can claim will no longer be eligible for Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA); instead they will be put on a 'youth training allowance' of £57, the same amount as their JSA but coming with more strict conditions.

The new allowance will be means-tested, so those with parents who earn more than £42,000 a year will get nothing, comforting news no doubt to the thousands without strong family ties.

This change is guaranteed to increase poverty, given that JSA provides a poverty-level income already and more are likely to be sanctioned under the new allowance.

Miliband sounded reasonable when selling the policy:

"Britain's young people who do not have the skills they need for work should be in training, not on benefits," he said, but as with the current government, he only understands sticks, not carrots.

As we have written before, one of the central issues facing all unemployed people is the hurt done to their confidence. Almost everyone wants to work, and being rejected by the jobs market deals a heavy blow to self-esteem.

This is why encouragement and real support are so important, and why threats and sanctions, as well as media and political scare-mongering, are so counter-productive in getting people into work.

Employers themselves say that training isn't as important as soft skills; job website Adzuna has studied its advert wordings and hard qualifications are only the fourth most desirable quality, behind things like communication skills, motivation and organisation.

There is better news for those who lose their jobs after a long work history: even though they will have to contribute National Insurance for five years to benefit, Labour could increase their JSA to £100 each week instead of the current £71.

It is regularly forgotten in the rush to condemn unemployed claimants that NI is an insurance scheme workers pay into to take care of their health, pension and out-of-work income needs.

The kind of conditions and sanctions imposed over the last few years have broken this deal, leaving the government looking like the kind of rogue insurance company that refuses to pay your burglary claim because you had the wrong kind of window locks, or because the criminal broke in on a Thursday.

The biggest contribution any party could make to unemployed people would be to restore livable incomes and respect to them, recognising their place as victims of the recession and industrial change.

The UK already has the lowest level of unemployment benefit in western Europe, and one of the highest levels of inequality, so taking from one side to give to the other would be an obvious solution to the economic issue.

Labour's desire to reward work is welcome, but it needs to develop more courage on the issue of benefits if it is to be seen as fit for government.