Labour's tougher line on bonuses

Party steps up the rhetoric but will it win back voters?

From the Labour conference

Alistair Darling's speech this afternoon was another example of the harsher line Labour ministers have taken on bank bonuses at the conference.

He promised that the new "clawback" system planned by the government would end the "reckless culture that puts short-term profits over long-term success". He also said: "It will mean an end to automatic bank bonuses year after year. It will mean an end to immediate payouts for top management."

But will it help lift Labour's dismal poll ratings? Today's ComRes poll for the Independent put the party level with the Lib Dems on 23 per cent, with the Tories on 38 per cent. Even allowing for the Lib Dems' standard post-conference bounce this is a remarkably low level of support.

Labour's best hope probably does lie in a populist stance on bonuses and extravagant salaries, with more measures such as the popular 50p income-tax rate. The test will be whether the party offers sufficiently distinct policies from the Tories.

I'd expect David Cameron and George Osborne to promise similarly tough action on bonuses in Manchester next week. The election success of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, who won by tacking to the left on bonuses and pay, is likely to concentrate Conservative minds.

I'm off to hear Ed Miliband in conversation with Steve Richards this afternoon, but it's his brother who's been garnering favourable headlines today.

The ComRes poll I mentioned earlier found that Labour would perform better at the next election under David Miliband than any other alternative leader, with the exception of Jack Straw. Under either of the two, Labour would be the largest party in a hung parliament, opening the way for a coalition with the Lib Dems.

Miliband is certainly enjoying a better conference than last year. His address at last night's New Statesman party was confident, amusing and self-deprecating. He made light of the 2008 "banana incident" by quipping about the multiple photo opportunities this year's crop of fresh fruit stalls provides.

But those who suggest Miliband represents Labour's future forget that the trade unions continue to hold a third of the votes in Labour's electoral college. Many trade unionists regard the Foreign Secretary as little better than a Tory.

There's been less discussion of Straw's impressive performance in the poll, although in the past he's been spoken of as a possible caretaker leader. If Labour's defeat next year is as severe as some predict, its younger figures may wish to keep their powder dry until the party has regained ground.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.