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of the personal allowance adequately compensates people on low incomes for the hit they are taking in frozen, cut or withdrawn benefits*.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

Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.