Osborne sets a welfare trap for Labour and a test for the coalition

The Chancellor's plan to increase benefits by just 1 per cent creates an awkward dilemma for Labour and Lib Dem MPs.

Everything George Osborne does is notoriously drenched in political calculation. The Autumn Statement was no exception. The Chancellor did not have much room for manoeuvre, given the enduring parlous state of the public finances, which remains (or should remain) the biggest story of the day. Inevitably, he fell back on familiar devices.

Much of the hard work of deficit reduction will be done, as was widely advertised in advance, by cuts to the benefits bill. The main new development, also much anticipated, is the decision to limit the up-rating of benefits to 1 per cent. Since that is lower than inflation, it will feel like a cut. The Chancellor rather sneakily announced the move in a passage that compared the burden faced by hard-working folk with the leisurely life of people on benefits. He repeated his favourite homily of the dogged commuter heading off to work, eyeing the feckless neighbour, blinds drawn, sleeping away a life on the dole. It is a popular theme with the Conservative press and in focus groups.

The problem is that, bundled up with Osborne’s supposed idle scroungers, are people who have jobs, work hard, struggle to make ends meet on low wages and currently depend on some combination of tax credits, child benefit, housing benefit, council tax benefit. The freeze affects them as much as it does those who are out of work (who, in any case, might reasonably be thought of as unfortunate jobseekers instead of pilfering dossers). Once all the number-crunching is done it will be interesting to see if the raising of the personal allowance adequately compensates people on low incomes for the hit they are taking in frozen, cut or withdrawn benefits*.

But politically the most significant element of the freeze is surely the announcement that it will be contained in a separate “Welfare Uprating Bill.” That is plainly an attempt by the Chancellor to put the opposition in an awkward dilemma. Either Miliband appals his party and signs up to the government’s position, which is highly unlikely, or he opposes the freeze/cut – a move that the Tories and most of the press would present as a profligate defence of scrounging. It is the same manoeuvre that was deployed with some effect in votes on Osborne’s benefits cap earlier this year. As I’ve noted before, this ploy has diminishing returns for the Tories. It presumes that the public will stay boundlessly enthusiastic about welfare cuts, regardless of who the recipients are and regardless of the social consequences. That is a risky calculation given the vulnerability of the Conservative brand to charges of heartlessness.

It is worth noting also that the Liberal Democrats were hardly more relaxed about the benefit cap than Labour. Nick Clegg’s party demanded changes to the measure in the Lords and some rebelled against it. As the squeeze on low-earning households is likely to deepen over the next few months and as the Lib Dems feel the need to assert their credentials as the in-house conscience of the coalition, their position on the latest benefits freeze will become very interesting to watch.

There are bound to be Lib Dem MPs with an impulse to reject Osborne’s latest assault on benefit-claimants. Labour will be more than usually glad of their company in a Commons vote on an issue that probes one of the party’s great electoral vulnerabilities – the charge of excess welfare spending. Osborne has set a trap for the opposition with his Uprating Bill. He has also set a potential test for coalition unity.

*Update: The Resolution Foundation has crunched the numbers and the answer is "no, it doesn't."

 

Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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