Now More Than Ever, Welfare Needs a Better Sales Pitch

04/10/2013 09:02 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

Yesterday's headlines, about removing benefits for those under 25, add to the mounting evidence that welfare will be on the front line of the 2015 election - a key issue for parties to show that Britain can do better than this, or that they're on the side of hard working people.

Stepping back from the detail of this latest worrying announcement, we're left with a bigger question: why is welfare on a thirty year popularity losing streak? And what role have its supporters - myself included - played in it?

Those that attack welfare today have a simple, razor-sharp message: some people out there are getting something for nothing, you're paying for it and it has to stop. And its supporters respond: these cuts are hitting the most vulnerable, the excluded, those in poverty.

For two sides of a heated debate, the messages have a striking similarity. They are about other people. Where is the 'us', the 'we', the everyday normality in either?

Those on the attack have framed the debate. They paint a picture a group of people somewhere out there different from you and I, with a different work ethic, and an alien set of aspirations and morals. But supporters too risk perpetuating the idea that this is about other people - it's just that they're good and deserving, and in need of our protection.

The truth is that people in need of a safety net don't typically sound, think or look very different from any of us. At least I hope so: I was one of them. My family got a council house when my dad was terminally ill with cancer, and we needed financial support at points too. Today, we would have been left searching for a home at the bottom end of an unstable private rental market, and faced with a harder battle to make ends meet.

No-one can pretend that the welfare system doesn't need reform, or that there aren't some people out there who exploit it. We have to tackle these problems head-on if we want to defend an effective safety net that supports people when they need it, and is supported by them when they don't.

But we cannot expect most people to defend the idea of the welfare state if we don't talk about how it's there for most people. We need to show that it's there for 'us', not 'them'.

At Shelter, recent experience and wider research tells us what messages make people stand up for the safety net we have. We know that saying 'it's there for the vulnerable', 'it's moral and civilised', or talking about child poverty or long-term problems just doesn't work.

The truth is that the single most convincing argument for welfare is this: we all want to think there will be a little bit of help to get us back on our feet if will lose our job or fall ill. Everyone wants a safety net to catch them when things start to spiral.

Those opposed to welfare seek to divide and have been incredibly successful at it. If you support it - like we do at Shelter - then we have to talk to and unite people across the country and income scale. More 'we' and 'us' and less 'them. More empathy, not sympathy.

Some will worry that the voices of those in most need will be lost in a mainstream message, but ask yourself whether they feel much listened to at the moment.

In 1940s America, an annoyed newspaper leader asked: "Who's against welfare? Nobody. Fighting an election by opposing welfare is on a par with taunting an opponent for being born in a log cabin."

British politics in 2013 couldn't be more different. The rhetoric around the welfare state is gathering momentum, and battle lines are being drawn. Those of us who want to defend it need to stop talking about 'them', and start talking about us - the people who need a safety net - as if they were a sister, a mother or a friend, because they typically are.