Osborne buries universal child benefit

The Tories' political gamble sets out a clear dividing line with Labour.

After last year's "age of austerity" message sent their poll ratings tumbling, the Tories were hoping to strike a more optimistic tone at this year's conference. But George Osborne's decision to bury the principle of universal child benefit means that all the talk is of cuts once more.

He announced this morning that child benefit would be axed for higher rate taxpayers from 2013, with no suggestion that it would be reinstated in the future - "I'm not planning to reverse this".

This means that all households in which at least one person earns £44,000 or more will lose out, although a family with two adults earning, say, £40,000 a year will not.

It's a big political gamble for the Tories and it amounts to an average tax increase of nearly £2,000 a year (£1,000 for the first child and £700 for each subsequent child) for the families affected.

As Sunder Katwala notes, the decision also jars with what many key Tories said during the election campaign. Here, for instance, is what Philip Hammond, then shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, told Newsnight on 27 April:

We have made a decision to rule out means testing child benefit because it is a universal benefit. Talking to people, one of the things they appreciate about child benefit that it is universal and easily understood. To start to means test it would erode it ... It reassures them about the availability of the benefit. If you start means testing it, if you start slicing away at that universality, then people are going to ask where you are going to stop.

Osborne's team respond by claiming that they haven't "means tested" child benefit, they've merely linked it to tax status. But to most voters that will look like a distinction without a difference.

The Tories' move also sets out a clear, and potentially defining, dividing line with Labour. Ed Miliband has been clearer than most in his defence of a universal welfare state, a position that is part politics - the need to retain middle-class support for state provision - and part principle - the state has an obligation to support families, regardless of their income.

As he told Andrew Marr recently:

I personally don't think we should reopen the issue of universal benefits ... I think that actually why do we give child benefit to families up and down this country? Because it's a recognition of the importance of family and the cost of children.

One should add, as all progessives know, that benefits for the poor tend to be poor benefits.

If Labour plays this right, it could easily scoop up support from the Tories' natural constituency. The political battle for the middle classes starts here.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.