Crackdown on crisis loans is simultaneously dystopian and Victorian

Tesco-only crisis loans, and paternalism for the poor. Marvellous.

The Guardian reports on the expected deluge in demand for crisis help, which is leading a number of councils to invest unconventional measures for helping those most at need.

Patrick Butler writes:

Cuts next year to the social fund, which provides emergency aid to vulnerable people, mean that from April 2013 many councils will no longer be able to provide cash help to applicants. Instead they will offer "in kind" support such as referring clients to food banks and issuing electronic food vouchers.

Crisis loans – short-term financial aid for people in dire need – cost £230m in 2009-2010, but the coalition has devolved responsibility for the loans in England to councils, while simultaneously cutting the pot back to 2005 levels.

This means that the days of simply being handed the money you need to make it to the next pay day are over.

Instead, poor people should look forward to being treated as though they can't be trusted with money.

Butler writes:

Conservative-run Kensington and Chelsea council in London is proposing to issue credit-card style vouchers – or "gift cards" – in lieu of crisis loans, enabling recipients to buy items at certain shops, likely to be big retailers such as Tesco, Argos and Sainsbury's. Some councils will put blocks on the cards preventing the purchase of alcohol and cigarettes. . .

Households who would previously have been eligible for a community care cash grant will be instead offered vouchers for reconditioned beds, cookers and fridges redeemable at furniture recycling charities.

But it is the plans to refer crisis loan applicants to food banks that will cause most controversy.

Crisis loans distributed in the form of gift cards which can only be redeemed in Tesco is the stuff of dystopian sci-fi, and giving poor people money while preventing them from spending it on alcohol and cigarettes is straight out of the Victorian age.

If you can help it, probably best to try and not be poor for a while.

A food bank in upstate New York. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.