Labour turns its fire on social care cuts

Age UK warns that spending on social care will be cut by 8.4 per cent this year.

The issue of social care is threatening to become yet another headache for the coalition. Despite a pledge by ministers to provide more funding, a survey by Age UK has found that English councils are planning to cut spending on social care for pensioners by £610m this year, or 8.4 per cent. Average net spending on those who need care is set to fall from £2,548 to £2,335. At a time when there are 800,000 older people who need care but do not receive it, a figure that is set to increase to one million by 2014, any suggestion of cuts is toxic for a government.

The care services minister, Paul Burstow, has already responded by arguing that the charity's figures "simply don't add up", claiming that Age UK has factored in only 35 per cent of a £1bn cash transfer from the NHS. He said: "Age UK's research does not give the full picture and they have seriously underestimated the amount of additional support for social care and older people in particular."

But Labour has gone on the attack this morning, warning that this is yet another area in which the coalition is cutting "too far and too fast". The shadow care services minister, Emily Thornberry, said: "Labour warned from the start that the Tories' plans to slash council budgets would mean deep cuts to care services and would see the most vulnerable in our society suffer."

Ed Miliband, who forged close links with charities whilst minister for the third sector, has recently proved adept at using third parties to advance his cause at PMQs. Age UK, which was voted charity of the year by MPs and Lords just a month ago, has provided the Labour leader with yet more evidence to buttress his argument against the cuts.

In the meantime, the debate over the long-term future of social care gathers intensity. The Dilnot Commission is set to recommend that individuals pay between £35,000 and £50,000 towards the cost of their care before the state steps in. This will allow the threshold for means-tested care to be raised from £23,250 to £100,000, ensuring that far fewer need to sell assets such as their family home. After the Tories' cynical "death tax" poster destroyed early hopes of a cross-party consensus, Miliband has made a "genuine and open" offer to try to reach agreement once the commission reports. But George Osborne's threat to "strangle the proposals at birth" and the war of words over cuts means that consensus may prove elusive again.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.