Is this the coalition's 10p tax moment?

Child benefit cuts come under attack from all sides.

It must count as some achievement to attract the simultaneous ire of the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the trade union movement and the Labour Party. That's the unusual position George Osborne finds himself in this morning as his raid on child benefit comes under attack.

It appears that the cabinet was given little, if any, advance warning of the move, with one minister describing it as "complete bombshell". The Mail and Telegraph both attack the measure as a blow against the family in their leaders this morning and the IFS warns of the perverse anti-work incentives that result from the move. The decision to abolish child benefit for all higher-rate taxpayers means that a one-earner couple with two children with a gross income of £43,876-£46,850 would be worse off than if their income were £43,875. A one-earner couple with an income of £43,875 would need a pay rise of at least £2,975 to ensure they were no worse off after paying tax and losing child benefit.

It's for reasons like this that, less than 24 hours after the measure was announced, the children's minister, Tim Loughton, has already floated the possibility of "compensating measures" for those who have lost out. Is this the coalition's 10p tax moment? It would be foolish to rule it out. The decision to simultaneously abolish tax credits for all those earning over £30,000 means that there will be howls of anguish from those set to lose thousands of pounds of benefits in a single stroke.

But far more significant is the fact that this marks the opening salvo in the coalition's war on the universal welfare state. The decision to make child benefit universal was never just about income, rather it was the means by which society collectively recognised and supported the decision of couples to start a family. Once the poison of means-testing is injected into the system, the principles on which the entire welfare state is built start to break down. And it is the poorest who will suffer the most from the abandonment of universality. As the great sociologist, Richard Titmuss phrased it: "services for the poor will always be poor services." Ed Miliband must live up to his campaign promises and resist the coalition all the way.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour's trajectory points to landslide defeat, but don't bet on a change at the top any time soon

The settled will among Jeremy Corbyn's critics that they need to keep quiet is unlikely to be disrupted by the result. 

Labour were able to tread water against Ukip in Stoke but sank beneath the waves in Copeland, where the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison won the seat.

In Stoke, a two-point swing away from Labour to the Tories and to Ukip, which if replicated across the country at a general election would mean 15 Conservative gains and would give Theresa May a parliamentary majority of 40.

And in Copeland, a 6.7 per cent swing for Labour to Tory that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour if replicated across the country, giving them a majority of 114.
As the usual trend is for the opposition to decline from its midterm position at a general election, these are not results that indicate Labour will be back in power after the next election.. That holds for Stoke as much as for Copeland.

The last time a governing party won a by-election was 1982 – the overture to a landslide victory. It’s the biggest by-election increase in the vote share of a governing party since 1966 – the prelude to an election in which Harold Wilson increased his majority from 4 to 96.

To put the length of Labour’s dominance in Copeland into perspective: the new Conservative MP was born in 1976. The last Conservative to sit for Copeland, William Nunn, was born in 1879.

It’s a chastening set of results for Ukip, too. The question for them: if they can’t win when Labour is in such difficulties, when will they?

It’s worth noting, too, that whereas in the last parliament, Labour consistently underperformed its poll rating in local elections and by-elections, indicating that the polls were wrong, so far, the results have been in keeping with what the polls suggest. They are understating the Liberal Democrats a little, which is what you’d expect at this stage in the parliament. So anyone looking for comfort in the idea that the polls will be wrong again is going to look a long time. 

Instead, every election and every poll – including the two council elections last night – point in the same direction: the Conservatives have fixed their Ukip problem but acquired a Liberal Democrat one. Labour haven’t fixed their Ukip problem but they’ve acquired a Liberal Democrat one to match.

But that’s just the electoral reality. What about the struggle for political control inside the Labour party?

As I note in my column this week, the settled view of the bulk of Corbyn’s internal critics is that they need to keep quiet and carry on, to let Corbyn fail on its his own terms. That Labour won Stoke but lost Copeland means that consensus is likely to hold.

The group to watch are Labour MPs in what you might call “the 5000 club” – that is, MPs with majorities around the 5000 mark. An outbreak of panic in that group would mean that we were once again on course for a possible leadership bid.

But they will reassure themselves that this result suggests that their interests are better served by keeping quiet at Westminster and pointing at potholes in their constituencies.  After all, Corbyn doesn’t have a long history of opposition to the major employer in their seats.

The other thing to watch from last night: the well-advertised difficulties of the local hospital in West Cumberland were an inadequate defence for Labour in Copeland. Distrust with Labour in the nuclear industry may mean a bigger turnout than we expect from workers in the nuclear industries in the battle to lead Unite, with all the consequences that has for Labour’s future direction.

If you are marking a date in your diary for another eruption of public in-fighting, don’t forget the suggestion from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott that the polls will have turned by the end of the year – because you can be certain that Corbyn’s critics haven’t. But if you are betting on any party leader to lose his job anytime soon, put it on Nuttall, not Corbyn.

 

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