The onslaught against working families continues

The government's response to youth unemployment will squeeze the "squeezed middle" even further.

If today's report proves correct then tomorrow Nick Clegg will announce a further blow for low-to-middle income families in order to pay for a new programme for the young unemployed.

Let's start with the better, latter, half of that sentence. The new programme will, according to insiders, walk and talk like Labour's "Future Jobs Fund", which offered incentives to employers to take on 18-24 year olds who had been out of work for more than 6 months. In case it has passed you by, this is the very programme that David Cameron likes to mock as being profligate and ineffective. Hence the new coalition version of it will under no circumstances be called by the same name (no doubt some Whitehall wag would have proposed the moniker "the fund for future jobs" -- but I'm guessing coalition ministers will have screened that out).

We'll find out tomorrow what the scheme looks like but if, as seems likely, the coalition has decided to swallow its ideological opposition to wage subsidies going to firms in order to encourage them to take on the young unemployed, then that is to be welcomed -- though it is scandalous that it's taken youth unemployment to reach 1 million to bring this about.

Now let's turn to how the nastier element of tomorrow's promised announcement: how it is to be paid for. Assuming the FT hasn't got it wrong, then the money will be found by the decision not to uprate tax-credits in line with inflation. Which is odd, iniquitous, and revealing all at the same time.

 

It's a bit odd because the Treasury has already banked the savings from freezing the working tax credit for the next three years. Which leaves the other big area of spending: child tax-credit. But here the coalition has sought to burnish their progressive credentials by announcing that they will over index the child element for the next few years (in an attempt to demonstrate some commitment to the child poverty target). Doubtless HM Treasury will have some wheeze up its sleeve for changing the indexing system for this child tax-credits - perhaps by uprating in line with earnings for this year, not inflation. But if this is the case they will face the charge they have broken with the spirit of the key spending commitment they have made on helping families with low-income children.

It's iniquitous because this will hit precisely those families who have already been on the end of the most severe squeeze of their lives. This April they already saw a major hit to support for childcare paid out via the tax credit system. This, along with other changes to tax-credits, mean that a single parent on £28k with two kids is losing £1,300 this year; or a couple with two kids on a joint income in the high £30ks is losing £2800 this year. And these cuts are a mere warm up for more than £1bn of further reductions to tax-credits that have already been announced and will commence in April 2012 - all of them targeted at the same families.

And let's not forget yesterday's news that median wages have plummeted 3.5% in real terms this year, far more for the low paid. So families whose wages are falling at a rapid rate, who have already been severely hit by April's budget cuts, and will be made poorer still in April 2012, are about to be told that they are first in line to take a cut to pay for a new programme.

Which is why this decision is also revealing. It demonstrates very clearly the knee-jerk response of ministers when pressed to find resources for a new funding pressure: take it from families getting tax-credits.

To be clear, I'm all for more action to deal with youth unemployment -- indeed, I suspect that I'd want something more ambitious than what is likely to be announced tomorrow. And that, of course, has got to be paid for. But not by low-to-middle income families.

It's not as if there are no alternatives. Labour will pursue their line that this should be funded through a tax on bankers' bonuses - and for all its well rehearsed feel, this will still strike a chord with many. But if the coalition didn't want to turn to the City there are other principled alternatives. The £7bn-£8bn spent on higher rate pension tax relief? Or stopping affluent pensioners receiving winter fuel allowance?

If this goes ahead, then don't let anyone say there was no alternative. Youth unemployment could be tackled without a further unnecessary squeeze on low-to-middle income Britain.

 

Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.