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Mimicking the Tories

Watching Labour frontbenchers compete with the conservative coalition is never a pretty sight

Watching Labour frontbenchers compete with the conservative coalition over who can put the boot more effectively into the unemployed is never a pretty sight.

Moreover, it's not a contest that Labour can win, since the Tories and Liberal Democrats have an inbuilt advantage.

While the governing parties are leading the way in cutting the welfare budget as a means of funding their services to the bankers and big business, Labour still has within its ranks many people who feel squeamish about this particular blood sport.

They recognise that people are not unemployed because of a dearth of basic skills but because there are not enough jobs to go round.

Identifying jobseekers' educational shortcomings as the reason for them not having a job absolves the capitalist system and government policies of responsibility and points the finger at the system's victims.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves's shabby mimicry of the government's previously announced intention of imposing English and maths lessons on young claimants as the price of their benefits is at odds with Ed Miliband's warning against demonising people on benefits.

Reeves says that the government plan is inadequate, waiting until three years after jobless people's first benefit claim before insisting on them starting literacy and numeracy training.

Labour would, she says, test the basic skills of all new applicants for jobseeker's allowance within six weeks and offer them an ultimatum of training or loss of benefits.

Neither Reeves nor Miliband goes into detail over who would offer this skills training, who would pay for it and how long it should last.

Literacy, numeracy and ICT skills are not cheap to provide, which is why central government has cut back on state-provided free tuition.

Enhancing individuals' skills sets should not be portrayed as a punishment or a sanction to convey a dog-whistle message that politicians are tough on supposed scroungers.

Greater literacy and numeracy are desirable irrespective of considerations of employability, but the collective failure of all the main parliamentary parties is that they accept no responsibility when in government for investment for jobs and prosperity.

They display their supposed toughness by berating people at the bottom of the heap who are least likely to vote.

But, as left Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Meacher point out, they are struck dumb in the face of corporate and individual tax-dodgers who exploit government-approved tax havens to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

Such is the scale of legal tax avoidance - to say nothing of its illegal sibling, tax evasion - that, were the gaps to be plugged, government debt and deficits could be wiped out.

But tackling the rich and powerful would require real political toughness not the self-indulgent windbaggery that assails our ears on a daily basis.

Miliband gave a vote of confidence to Ed Balls at the weekend, asserting that the shadow chancellor has a clear idea of what the economy needs and is working with the leader over the cost of living crisis.

But his main attribute is his "toughness to stand up to lots of people who want more spending, when actually it's going to be tough for Labour."

Big business, including the banks, continues to make superprofits while workers' wages fell by 9.6 per cent between 2011 and 2013.

This shows clearly that Labour, in obsessing about benefits claimants, is taking aim at the wrong target.

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