The welfare debate is only just warming up

Making out that cutting working-age welfare won’t hurt those in work is so divorced from reality that there was always going to be backlash. None of which is to say that Osborne’s gamble won’t pay off.

Powerful Chancellors often over-reach politically before a fall, or at least a bump. For Gordon Brown, it was the desire to cut the basic rate of tax to 20p which brought with it the abolition of the 10p tax rate and the debacle that ensued. When it comes to George Osborne, the political itch that needs to be scratched is the desire to legitimise cutting support for those on low incomes – working and non-working families alike – through his favoured framing of supporting strivers and hurting scroungers.

Whether this agenda, and its associated parliamentary game-playing, will work to his advantage, or end with a bump, is not just the issue of the month it’s a theme that will run through 2013 all the way to the next election. Expect further ‘welfare savings’ reaching out beyond the Spending Review until 2020, dwarfing those announced in the Autumn Statement, to be announced in the second half of the Parliament (more likely by the Conservatives, than the Coalition) giving rise to an eye-watering grand total that will be the centre-piece of David Cameron’s election campaign. It will be coming to a billboard near you in the form of a poster about ‘Labour’s tax-bombshell’ arising from its need to pay for welfare.

Those rushing to declare how all this will play out with the electorate based on a few uncertain polls should pause: we have not yet reached the end of the beginning of this debate, with the Parliamentary vote on up-rating due in January. There isn’t a settled view among the public. There’s not a well developed awareness of the nature of the hardship that will arise from the scale of the cuts, the great bulk of which are still to come. Nor, conversely, can we gauge the consequences of the political resentment that will continue to swell as real wages fall through next year and into 2014.

But a few early conclusions can be drawn. One is the piercing of the hubristic view that a casual  deployment of the ‘strivers’ narrative is enough on its own to ensure an easy ride for further welfare cuts: there is political risk here for Osborne as well as opportunity. Another is that Labour will have to marry its current opposition, based on fairness, with a forensic fiscal analysis of how its measures could secure lower welfare bills in the future via higher employment. This means saying more about how they will deploy effective job-programmes (which given the successful legacy of the Future Jobs Fund should be possible); more about how their wider strategy for welfare and public services will enable higher employment; and more about how any up-front costs would be paid for. As future welfare cuts mount, and the scale of the impending tax-attack from the Conservatives grows, a fairness argument on its own will leave it highly exposed. A fiscal response is needed too.

In the meantime Labour is resting heavily on the fact that by ramping up the rhetorical stakes Osborne has succeeded in rumbling himself. Up until now the part of his strategy that the Chancellor is most anxious about – that cutting ‘welfare’ actually means hitting the working poor – received scant media attention. Now, for the first time, it’s considered news.   

The hope is that this new spirit of scrutiny results in a closer examination of what has actually been happening to in-work support. Take working tax credit. Osborne’s first budget in 2010 took the decision to freeze a large chunk of it. Next up was the cut in support for childcare going exclusively to working parents. Then in autumn 2011 came the decision to freeze the remaining aspects of working tax credit (at a time when inflation had spiked at 5%) followed in this year’s Budget by deep cuts in support for those working part-time (at a time of mass under-employment). It is an unnoticed irony that the Autumn Statement’s controversial decision to uprate working tax credit by a mere 1% actually represents a more generous offering from the Chancellor than his previous diet of cash freezes and policy cuts.

The Coalition’s retort is, of course, that a combination of increased personal tax allowances and, in time, the Universal Credit will improve the plight up the working poor. To assert that no one in work will be worse off once increased tax allowances are taken into account is manifest nonsense – to see why you only need to consider the example of the person earning less than the personal tax allowance and receiving tax credits. Indeed, on average the losses arising from the Autumn Statement due to cuts to benefits and tax credits outweigh the gains from the increased allowance across the entire bottom half of the income distribution (though bear in mind that hidden within these averages will be many working households who do gain overall: most obviously dual earning households without children).

As for the Universal Credit, it is in the unfortunate position of being over-hyped, under-planned and now eroded by cuts – all prior to implementation. Conceived out of the laudable desire to ensure that the low paid can keep more of their own money, it is actually going to result in increased numbers facing higher effective tax rates. Moreover, the Coalition’s two flagship ‘striver’ policies – personal tax allowance and universal credit - are set to collide in something of a Whitehall car-crash. Those receiving universal credit will lose two thirds of any gains arising from future increases in the personal allowance – gains that other, higher earning, tax payers will receive. As one policy gives, the other simultaneously takes.

The extent to which any of this really impacts on the politics of welfare cuts over the next year is, of course, another matter. The deadening language in which most of the debate is conducted - earnings disregards, uprating systems, and marginal deduction rates – is more likely to result in glazed eyes than raised voices. More visible, and combustible, for the Coalition is likely to be the impending cut to council tax benefit (again aimed at both the working poor and the out of work) which will show up in spring’s council tax bills.

Running down those on state support, whether in or out of work, and implying that they are somehow undeserving is nasty politics. And making out that cutting working-age welfare won’t hurt those in work is so divorced from reality that there was always going to be backlash. None of which is to say that Osborne’s gamble won’t pay off. It’s still all to play for. Either way, the heavy handed manner in which this political trap was set doesn’t reflect well. Over the longer term Chancellors fare best when they leave the political tricksiness to others.

Passengers travel on a London bus. Photo: Getty

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Sadiq Khan is probably London's new mayor - what will happen in a Tooting by-election?

There will be a by-election in the new mayor's south London seat.

At the time of writing, Sadiq Khan appears to have a fairly comfortable lead over Zac Goldsmith in the London mayoral election. Which means (at least) two (quite) interesting things are likely to happen: 1) Sadiq Khan is going to be mayor, and 2) there is going to be a by-election in Tooting.

Unlike the two parliamentary by-elections in Ogmore and Sheffield that Labour won at a canter last night, the south London seat of Tooting is a genuine marginal. The Conservatives have had designs on the seat since at least 2010, when the infamous ‘Tatler Tory’, Mark Clarke, was the party’s candidate. Last May, Khan narrowly increased his majority over the Tories, winning by almost 3,000 votes with a majority of 5.3 per cent. With high house prices pushing London professionals further out towards the suburbs, the seat is gentrifying, making Conservatives more positive about the prospect of taking the seat off Labour. No government has won a by-election from an opposition party since the Conservative Angela Rumbold won Mitcham and Morden from a Labour-SDP defector in June 1982. In a nice parallel, that seat borders Tooting.

Of course, the notion of a Tooting by-election will not come as a shock to local Conservatives, however much hope they invested in a Goldsmith mayoral victory. Unusually, the party’s candidate from the general election, Dan Watkins, an entrepreneur who has lived in the area for 15 years, has continued to campaign in the seat since his defeat, styling himself as the party’s “parliamentary spokesman for Tooting”. It would be a big surprise if Watkins is not re-anointed as the candidate for the by-election.

What of the Labour side? For some months, those on the party’s centre-left have worried with varying degrees of sincerity that Ken Livingstone may see the by-election as a route back into Parliament. Having spent the past two weeks muttering conspiratorially about the relationship between early 20th-Century German Jews and Adolf Hitler before having his Labour membership suspended, that possibility no longer exists.

Other names talked about include: Rex Osborn, leader of the Labour group on Wandsworth Council; Simon Hogg, who is Osborn’s deputy; Rosena Allin-Khan, an emergency medicine doctor who also deputises for Osborn; Will Martindale, who was Labour’s defeated candidate in Battersea last year; and Jayne Lim, who was shortlisted earlier in the year for the Sheffield Brightside selection and used to practise as a doctor at St George’s hospital in Tooting.

One thing that any new Labour MP would have to contend with is the boundary review reporting in 2018, which will reduce the number of London constituencies by 5. This means that a new Tooting MP could quickly find themselves pitched in a selection fight for a new constituency with their neighbours Siobhan McDonagh, who currently holds Mitcham and Morden, and/or Chuka Umunna, who is the MP for Streatham. 

According to the Sunday Times, Labour is planning to hold the by-election as quickly as possible, perhaps even before the EU referendum on June 23rd.

It's also worth noting that, as my colleague Anoosh Chakelian reported in March, George Galloway plans to stand as well.

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.