Tory welfare reforms are misguided

The Universal Credit will make work cost, not pay.

There is much to praise in Iain Duncan Smith's aspirations for welfare reform, outlined in the bill his department has published today. He wants to make it certain that work pays more than benefits and ensure there are clear obligations to work in the welfare system. The theories behind his big ideas – the Universal Credit and the Work Programme – have the potential to make a real difference to people's lives.

However, the problem for the Work and Pensions Secretary is that he gives the impression of thinking that amending taper rates in the benefits system and devising a smart contracting structure for employment support will be a silver bullet for problems as varied and complex as everything from worklessness to poverty to family breakdown. And he tries to pretend his reforms are taking place in isolation from the rest of government policy and the state of the economy. This is why his good intentions could, sadly, run aground.

The first point is the obvious one. It is much harder for people to find jobs when unemployment is rising. To be fair, this point is sometimes overstated. There is vastly greater movement of people in and out of work than the static monthly employment figures suggest (a point all too rarely reflected in public and media debate). For instance, in January, 325,000 people made a new claim for Jobseeker's Allowance and 344,000 left benefit.

Much more worrying is the staggering 93,000 rise in inactivity during the last quarter – these are people who have basically given up looking for work, many choosing to retire early. These people are the equivalent of the "lost generation" that was left on the scrapheap by the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. And these are the people who need the government to focus its economic policy on job creation (to increase the overall supply of work) and to entrench a job guarantee as a backstop in the welfare state (to ensure no one drifts into long-term unemployment).

The second problem for Duncan Smith is the cuts to support for low- and middle-income families that he was forced to swallow by the Chancellor as the price for winning Treasury support for his reform plans. An £18bn squeeze on the benefits bill would cause any welfare minister a political headache, but the biggest difficulty is that the impact of these reductions directly contradicts his own policy goals. For a start, over £5bn of the cuts hit working families, reducing their living standards and their incentive to continue working.

And it's not just the measures announced in the Budget and on the Spending Review scorecard that are poised to bite. First, the IFS has confirmed that the Universal Credit will weaken the incentive for potential second earners to work, relative to the current system of tax credits. And now it is reported that the "capital limits" (the level of savings you can hold while still receiving state support) that currently apply to out-of-work benefits will be extended to working families in the Universal Credit.

This means that 400,000 families on a low wage will be stripped of the help they get to top up their wages (and make work pay), simply because they have done the right thing and put some money aside. A further 200,000 will be newly subject to a means test on in-work support for the crime of having savings. This measure will save the government shedloads of cash, but it is disastrous for incentives to work and save. In fact it will make work cost, not pay.

A technical change with a palpable impact on low earners. A measure that is slipped in by stealth and not declared openly by the government. A reform whose impact is directly contrary to the stated goals of ministers. Does that remind you of anything?

If the Social Market Foundation analysis is right – that working families with two children, an annual income of £25,000 and savings of over £16,000 could be £2,600 worse off a year – we could be looking at a Tory 10p tax debacle in the run-up to this year's Budget and local elections.

Graeme Cooke is a senior researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Graeme Cooke is Associate Director at IPPR

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Jeremy Corbyn's won a monumental victory - but it's more delicate than it looks

The need for peace on the left is overwhelming. 

It is perverse, absurd even, that in the aftermath of such a monumental victory Jeremy Corbyn must immediately talk of coalition building and compromise. Previous winners of internal struggles – most notably Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock – certainly did nothing of the sort, and Corbyn’s victory is bigger than theirs. To an extent, this is not the victory of one set of ideas but the establishment of a new party altogether – with a completely different centre of gravity and an almost completely new membership. 

That new Labour party – and core project that has built around Corbyn’s leadership – is itself a delicate network of alliances. The veterans of big social movements, from the Iraq War to the anti-austerity protests of 2011, find themselves in bed with left-leaning cosmopolitan modernisers and the reanimated remnants of the old Labour left. All parts of the coalition have reason for hubris, to believe that this new formation – complex enough as it is already, and filled with ideas and energy – can carry the Corbyn project into Number 10 with or without the co-operation of his Labour colleagues and the wider left. 

That vision is a mirage. Labour has undergone the biggest membership surge in its history, and is now the biggest left of centre party in Europe. As John Curtis has pointed out, the party’s support has maintained a high floor relative to the level of infighting and sniping over the summer, in part because of Corbyn’s strong appeal to Labour’s base. But the bleak electoral outlook, compounded by boundary changes, requires us to do more than read out lines from pre-written scripts. We must all, from a position of strength, stare death in the face.

The terms of peace with the Labour right must be negotiated carefully. There can be no negotiating away of internal democracy in the selection of candidates or national policy-setting; doing so would permanently weaken the left’s hand and allow Corbyn’s detractors in parliament to run riot. And in policy terms, Corbyn cannot compromise basic anti-austerity principles – not just because doing so would be a betrayal that would demobilise Labour’s new base, but because the project of triangulation pioneered by Ed Milliband is a tried and tested electoral failure. 

And yet the need for peace is overwhelming. At a grassroots level, Owen Smith’s support was not made up of hardened Blairites. Many of them, unlike Smith himself, really did share Corbyn’s political vision but had been ground down and convinced that, regardless of the rights and wrongs, there could be no end to Labour’s civil war without new leadership. The left’s job is to prove those people, and the politicians who claim to represent them, wrong. 

Labour’s assorted hacks – on left and right – often forget how boring and irrelevant the search for Labour’s soul looks to a wider public that long ago left behind party tribalism. The intellectual task ahead of us is about framing our politics in a comprehensible, modernising way – not creating a whole new generation of people who know Kinnock’s 1985 conference speech by rote. 

A united Labour Party, free to focus on shifting the consensus of British politics could well change history. But the grim realities of the situation may force us to go even further. To get a majority at the next election, Labour will need to gain 106 seats – a swing not achieved since 1997. 

Add to that the socially conservative affirmation of the Brexit vote, and the left’s profound confusion in terms of what to do about it, and the challenge of getting a Labour Prime Minister – regardless of who they are or what they stand for – looks like an unprecedented challenge. That unprecedented challenge could be met by an unprecedented alliance of political forces outside the Labour party as well as inside it. 

In order for Labour to win under the conditions set by the boundary review, everything has to be calibrated right. Firstly, we need an energised, mass party which advocates radical and popular policies. Secondly, we need the party not to tear itself apart every few months. And yes, finally, we may well need an honest, working arrangement between Labour, the Greens, and other progressive parties, including even the Lib Dems. 

Exactly how that alliance would be constituted – and how far it would be under the control of local parties – could be the matter of some debate. But there is every chance of it working – especially if the terms of the next general election take place in the context of the outcome of a Brexit negotiation. 

The starting point for that journey must be a recognition on the part of Corbyn’s opponents that the new Labour party is not just the overwhelming democratic choice of members, but also – with a mass activist base and a mostly popular programme – the only electable version of the Labour party in the current climate. For the left’s part, we must recognise that the coalition that has built around Corbyn is just the core of a much wider set of alliances – inside Labour and perhaps beyond.