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The Tories Can Ill Afford to Crow About Welfare

16/07/2013 17:06 BST | Updated 15/09/2013 10:12 BST

There was a time when it looked like David Cameron might have grasped the biggest political challenge of our age.

When people are laid off in a recession, he acknowledged in a speech back in 2008, the impact often lasts long after the slump even into recovery. He had, he said, "learned the lessons from history" and went on to denounce his former boss Norman Lamont's creed that 'unemployment is a price worth paying' by admitting the "social disaster" of long term unemployment.

Five years on, however, long-term unemployment is increasing under his watch and the "social disaster" he recognized is not going away. On the contrary, it's laying down deep roots.

Despite overall unemployment falling, the number of people out of work for at least 12 months has risen by 16,000 in the last 12-months. There are currently 898,000 long-term unemployed people in the UK and Government efforts to get these into work have been an abject failure.

Nearly nine out of ten people who've been on the Government's back to work scheme have been failed. The Government is missing every single one of its minimum targets and that's why the benefits bill is £21billion higher than planned.

Meanwhile Iain Duncan Smith's over hyped Universal Credit revolution is not so much gathering pace as spluttering to a halt. Last week in a hopeless performance before MPs he was forced to admit more delays, a failure to keep promises and the fact that his flagship scheme was reaching less than 1.5% of the nation's job centres. At this rate we may see high speed rail before a proper Universal Credit rollout.

Against this terrible policy backdrop you'd expect the Tories to show a little humility about the challenges they face. Not so. On welfare the Tories are starting to develop something of a swagger. Their tails are up. Their benefits cap policy, they believe, is the answer to all problems. A wild-eyed election mode fever has taken hold of the frontbench. Never mind the fact that for most northern constituencies the £500 a week housing benefit cap would never apply anyway. In the case of Rochdale it will act as zero incentive to encourage people back to work.

But that is the problem with this Government. They're less concerned with the size of the problems than the size of the headlines.

This is the effect of Lynton Crosby, the Tory strategist whose single aim is to politicise everything. Party political battles and deep dividing lines come first. Outcomes? Forget it. This is politics. The long term unemployed in Rochdale are just pawns to be shifted around a strategy board. The "very human story" that Cameron spoke about in 2008, when he insisted lessons from history had been learned has been swept away in a tide of crude politicking.

This might result in some good rows in the House of Commons and get some sections of the media excited. But the job of lifting people out of long term unemployment, saving lives and giving people hope remains undone.

I'm the first to admit that all political parties have failed to reach the hardest to reach groups that have been lost to the jobs market. It is a huge challenge and that's why Labour's compulsory jobs guarantee for the long term unemployed is a policy that goes much further than any approach I've known.

The lessons from history that David Cameron talks about remind us time after time that if we leave large numbers of people rotting on the unemployment scrapheap we're only storing up big problems for the future. We should never forget this and that's why getting people into jobs should always take priority over scoring political points.