Why Labour isn't thanking Clegg for killing the boundary changes

Clegg was for the boundary changes before he was against them.

Given that he may have just handed the next election to Labour, you might ask why Nick Clegg isn't being hailed as a progressive hero by Ed Miliband's MPs this morning. The answer is that Labour still despises him for supporting the boundary changes in the first place. Clegg didn't merely accept the changes as a quid pro quo for the AV referendum (as the Deputy PM previously observed, they were never linked to House of Lords reform), he genuinely believed in them. In 2010, he told MPs:

There can be no justification for maintaining the current inequality between constituencies and voters across the country.

On another occasion, at Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions, Clegg declared:

It is one of the founding principles of any democracy that votes should be valued in the same way, wherever they are cast. Over the years, all sorts of anomalies have developed, such that different people’s votes are simply not worth the same in elections to this place. That surely cannot be right, and it is worth reminding those Opposition Members who object to the rationale that it was one of the founding tenets of the Chartists-one of the predecessor movements to the Labour party-that all votes should be of equal value.

As shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan noted:

It was left to Labour to fight the arbitrary reduction in the number of MPs. Getting rid of 50 MPs hits Labour the most, and that’s why the Tory-led Government chose that figure. It was nothing to do with better politics, or about saving money – particularly as this Government has created an extra 117 unelected peers since May 2010.

The reason yesterday's events will do nothing to enhance Clegg's standing is that he chose to rebel over a matter of politics, rather than a matter of principle (such as the NHS reforms or welfare cuts). The Deputy Prime Minister's reputation as a turncoat and an opportunist is secure. Once again, he has united both the left and the right in loathing for him.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Photograph: Getty Images

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.