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

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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