Osborne squeezes benefits again

Benefits will not be raised in line with September inflation in order to cut fuel duty.

It is indicative of George Osborne's political beliefs that when forced to choose between squeezing the rich and squeezing the poor, he squeezes the poor. Having already cut welfare payments by uprating benefits in line with the Consumer Price Index rather than the (generally higher) Retail Price Index (see James Plunkett's Staggers blog on the coalition's "£11bn stealth cut"), a move that cost families hundreds of pounds a year, he has changed the rules again.

I speculated last month that higher-than-expected inflation meant benefit payments would not be uprated in line with September's figures (when CPI inflation stood at 5.2 per cent) but a lower set of figures. Today's Times (£) confirms that Osborne is planning to do just this. Rather than increasing benefits in line with September inflation (as is traditional), he will increase them in line with a six month average (currently 4.5 per cent). Osborne has wisely exempted pensioners' benefits from the move - no government can afford to alienate the grey vote - but the policy change will still save the government around £1bn a year.

The money will reportedly be used to scrap the planned 3p rise in fuel duty this January, a populist measure that makes a mockery of the government's claim to be the "greenest ever". Moreover, it will do nothing to help the poorest, many of whom cannot afford to use a car. It is they who will suffer most from a real-terms cut in benefits. Those receiving disability benefits, carer's allowance, income support and jobseeker's allowance, will lose £50 to £100 a year. As Alison Graham, the chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, points out:

Increasing benefits below inflation will mean even more poor families having to choose between heating and eating. The costs of heating and electricity have gone up well ahead of inflation, with electricity up by around 10 per cent and gas up by around 15 per cent, so the Government should consider above-inflation increases to protect the health and well-being of children.

With unemployment at a 17-year high, the government should be increasing, not reducing benefits, a policy for which there is an economic as well as a moral case. Low earners spend a greater proportion of their disposable income than high earners and stimulate growth as a result. Once again, Osborne has adopted a policy that is neither economically wise nor socially just.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Virgin video is a Jennifer's Ear for modern times

Just as with the Virgin video, the fundamental underpinnings of the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast were true, regardless of the creative shortcuts.

Memory is a funny thing, in politics as in life. Gordon Brown was the co-architect of New Labour, the longest-serving Chancellor of the Exchequer since 1823 and very probably helped avert the end of money during the financial crisis.

But when James Morris, Ed Miliband’s pollster, ran focus groups in Nuneaton earlier this year, they  found that the incident that most people associated with Brown was of him punching a protestor during the 2001 general election. Except, here’s the thing: Brown never threw the punch at all. It was John Prescott, the then-deputy Prime Minister, who landed the blow.

And although Piggate was the funniest furore that David Cameron (remember: he was accused of having put his penis in a dead pig’s mouth at university) was involved in, it wasn’t the dead pig that focus groups remembered when they were asked about Cameron – right throughout his premiership, it was photos of Cameron cycling to work with a car carrying his papers following on behind that stuck in people’s minds.

The appeal of the latter row, and with the spat between Virgin Trains and Jeremy Corbyn, is that it feeds into an idea that is commonly believed by most people: that politicians are hypocrites. Our brains reward us with feelgood sensations for confirming our beliefs and with negative ones with findings that run contrary to them.

In case you haven’t followed: in the beginning, a viral video of Jeremy Corbyn depicted the Labour leader eschewing a first class upgrade to work in the aisle of a crowded Virgin train. Today, Virgin Trains hit back, revealing CCTV footage showing that there were, in fact, spare seats available from the start of the journey.

Of course, it is in Virgin’s interests to push back against a high-profile criticism of its services (not so much to avoid renationalisation but also the loss of the contract to another company) just as it is in Corbyn’s to have a sharper, video-friendly version of the – 100 per cent authentic – images of him on a bus home that frequently exploded on Twitter and Facebook during last summer’s Labour leadership election.

It feels very close to the so-called “War of Jennifer’s Ear”, the row that erupted over a Labour party political broadcast about the effects of 13 years of Conservative rule on the NHS in 1992. The  advert was based loosely on the operation of a girl whose father, John Bennett, had written to Robin Cook, then Labour’s shadow health secretary.

But the consultant in charge of the operation, who had blamed under-funding in a letter to the Bennett family before the advert came out, U-Turned once the broadcast had aired. (To make matters worse, Jennifer’s mother and grandmother, both Conservatives, also denounced the broadcast.)

Labour was plunged into controversy. The rights and wrongs of the row are still contentious, just as this row is likely to remain too. And it emerged very swiftly that key elements of the planning of the broadcast were shambolic – Cook’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the case were not as thorough as might have been hoped, the consultant had not been spoken to in detail, and the Toryism of Jennifer’s mother and grandmother came as a total shock. It may be that similar behind-the-scenes errors emerge about the Virgin video.

But just as with the Virgin video, the fundamental underpinnings of the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast were true – operations were cancelled and delayed due to underfunding, there are numerous trains that are overcrowded, where people have to sit in aisles, and so on.

Of course, Corbyn has a particular glass jaw over any issue that appears to be “spun” due to his “kinder politics” line. Just as Tony Blair promised to be “purer than pure”. it's a pledge that is the political equivalent of handing your opponent a stick and then politely explaining how best to hit you with it.  

Although the row over Jennifer’s Ear is now largely forgotten, it was one of the many scapegoats for Labour’s shock defeat in 1992, albeit one that every serious study into the loss concluded had nothing to do with the final result. (And it’s worth pointing out that even losing a row about the issues that your party “owns”, be it health or what to do with the railways, tends to be better for your side than talking about issues on which your party is on hostile territory)  Corbyn’s sitting arrangements, like the ear, will have a similarly limited afterlife. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.