Housing benefit can be the route to social mobility

Without housing benefit mine and my family's life chances would have been obliterated.

For four weeks in 2008, aged 24 and an unemployed graduate, I tried to claim housing benefit. I had just moved to London with my then partner from Yorkshire via a postgraduate training course in Essex, and a stint living back with my dad and temping in a bid to clear multifarious student debts. Both my partner and I were interning, me for a national magazine, he for a think tank. Neither of us was paid bar minimal expenses. But since his internship was longer-term, DFSS somehow decided that constituted a job, a job that meant he could or should support me (despite the fact he was living on hand-outs from his parents) and which invalidated my claim for housing benefit after just three weeks. In the end his family (who lived in Cyprus) offered to lend me some money, and soon after I landed a minimum wage media database job.

I was relatively privileged. There was some housing benefit available to me, for however short a time. At the eleventh hour, there was someone to help out. If I’d gone back home to West Yorkshire I could have kissed goodbye to a media career in the capital and my autonomy, but I’d still have had bare means. Certainly more than my younger cousin, a carpenter by trade, married with two small children and who had lost his job twice in 12 months since the recession gauged a chunk out of the northern economy, relying on benefits to keep him and his family going until he finally found work again. Brought up in a two-up two-down terrace, moving back into his childhood home with his partner and two small children wouldn’t exactly have made for comfortable living. That my aunt had serious health problems and one of her daughters (admittedly over the age of 25), her partner and two small children living with them for a while too due to similar economic constraints would have made it untenable.

Give or take a couple of years and Cameron’s proposed policy would have seen my cousin and I, two prime examples of the ‘feckless’, ‘entitled’ under-25-year-old benefit scroungers he wishes to obliterate, pretty much obliterated before we’d had a chance to make adult lives for ourselves. 

Where should my cousin have moved back to, exactly, Mr Cameron when there was no work for him, though he was desperate to graft, and when his family home was already overstretched? And shouldn’t I, along with thousands of other have been paid for working in the first place, so that there was no need to claim housing benefit? For me, housing benefit was a means of realising my ambitions and enabling social mobility; for my cousin, it was a matter of basic sustenance and pride.  Neither of us wanted state support, but to be able to support ourselves. And that’s not even to mention the situations, needs, or desires of our parents, whom Cameron would similarly see encumbered by banishing us back home in his bid not to overburden the state.

In Cameronland, it’s either spare bedrooms and free use of the second car, or gutless work-shysters who dream of a shabby, free flat on a sink estate. There may well be some 18-year-olds that plot a trajectory from their parents’ council house to their own, but for the majority of the 380,000 under-25-year-olds currently claiming house benefit, their circumstances will be as nuanced and complex as Cameron’s proposed policy is crude. You might want to look at some of those case studies, Mr Cameron, before being dazzled by the immediate cost savings. The sanctity – and sanity – of your so-called big society is at stake.

A block of flats in Bath. Photograph: Getty Images

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.