Child benefit u-turn ahoy!

Ed Balls is attacking the Chancellor on child benefit cuts partly because he knows it is a policy th

Ed Balls has written an article for the PoliticsHome website previewing Labour's lines of attack on the government ahead of the Budget. Alongside the usual complaints that not enough is being done to boost jobs and growth, there is a new specific emphasis on cuts that, according to the Shadow Chancellor, represent a "bombshell" for families.

On Monday Labour will use an Opposition Day debate in the House of Commons to repeat our demand a plan for jobs and growth in next month's Budget. And we will call on the Chancellor to think again on changes to tax credits and child benefit which will cost families with children up to £4,000 per year.

Labour knows this is a weak spot for the government. The cuts Balls identifies are particularly ill thought through and he knows it. Tax credits were raided in a panic late last year to find extra money to pay for a back-to-work scheme for young people that was hastily cobbled together when it became clear that youth unemployment was becoming a political problem. Child benefit cuts for higher rate tax payers were announced ahead of the 2010 Conservative party conference partly as a tactical gambit by the Chancellor to demonstrate that he had the courage to raid his own party's supporters' pockets for the deficit reduction programme - thereby proving to everyone else that "we're all in it together."

The problem, as more and more people are noticing, is that the cuts are unworkable. James Forsyth reports in today's Mail on Sunday how anxious George Osborne and David Cameron are about child benefit in particular. The chief problem is that two-income households in which each earner is just below the higher rate threshold keep their benefit, while a single-income household just above the line gets hit. Yet the former family is much better off. Desperate compromises are being debated in Downing Street.

A shadow cabinet minister recently complained to me that Labour have not pressed the government enough on this issue, leaving it to Tory backbenchers to demand changes. "There's clearly going to be a u-turn on child benefit cuts," I was told. "Why aren't we lining up to get the credit for it?" Well now they are.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.