What does Miliband mean by the "structural" welfare bill?

It doesn't even need capping.

Ed Miliband will cap "structural welfare spending" if he is elected in 2015, he announced today, saying that "such a cap will alert the next Labour government to problems coming down the track and ensure that we make policy to keep the social security budget in limits."

It's not entirely clear what Miliband means by "structural" welfare spending at this point. It could just be a political fudge, designed to mimic the Conservatives' similarly fudgy focus on the "structural" deficit. The structural deficit is a particularly difficult thing to actually measure, because it relies on three pieces of information all of which are themselves uncertain: the output gap, the relation of public spending to economic growth, and the response of tax revenues to both.

Get any of them wrong, and your estimate of the structural deficit is off; get all three wrong, and you can be billions of pounds off the mark. And look at just the variation in the estimates of the output gap, via Touchstone:

But whereas the structural deficit is at least a conventional economic concept, albeit one hugely prone to measurement error, it's not entirely clear what "structural" welfare spending is, and even less clear how to cap it.

The best guess is that the structural welfare bill is the bill which we would expect to see in normal times; in other words, Labour won't view a rise in housing benefit due to the recession as a problem, but would be more concerned if, during the recovery, it fails to drop down to lower levels.

If that is the definition, then it has an interesting outcome once Labour start to cap it, because, as Declan Gaffney showed last month, "there has been no structural increase in the level of aggregate working age welfare spending for a very long time". That's because welfare spending, properly construed, must take into account foregone revenue as well as public expenditure: the most prominent example of which is tax credits. Around £3bn of the cost of tax credits in 2012/13 came from an offset to income tax. Money wasn't being "spent", but it was certainly a cost of welfare.

And when you take into account other taxation expenditures – like the mortgage interest tax relief, which was abolished in 2000 – you find that structural welfare costs have stayed remarkably stable. This chart again from Declan Gaffney's piece:


The real question is what "structural" welfare means for people not of working age. Because, thanks to our ageing nation, the state pension liability is growing year-on-year, and even pushing back the pension age by a year from 2026 won't help too much. Of course, it would be possible for Labour to define that increase as something other than structural – "demographic", perhaps – and thereby dodge the question. But if they don't, the key effect of this promise could be that Labour has pledged to cut pensions, two years before a general election against a party which has pledged to keep them above inflation and wage rises indefinitely.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.