IDS is in trouble over his strivers’ tax – and he knows it

Unable to justify the government's decision to cut support for families, the Work and Pensions Secretary has resorted to myths.

You can tell ministers are in trouble when they start peddling distortions on the scale we've seen from Iain Duncan Smith this week. IDS is in trouble. And he knows it.

Next week, the beleaguered Work and Pensions Secretary comes to the Commons to defend the indefensible. The comprehensive failure of George Osborne's budgets has forced the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to revise up its forecasts for the claimant count by a third of a million. That's pushed up welfare spending by an eye-watering £13bn. To pay that bill, IDS has been asked to push through a strivers' tax - more than 60 per cent of which will come from working families -  on top of the £14bn already removed from tax credits, while Britain's richest citizens get a £3bn a year tax break.

It’s unjustifiable. And IDS knows it. So this week, we've had a very muddled attempt to make up some kind of case.

First, we had a made-up story that tax credit fraud had jumped by 58 per cent. This claim lasted about as long as it took Channel 4's FactCheck to gently point out, that IDS couldn't actually add up and the sums were wrong. Then we had a new line of attack. Benefits are rising faster than earnings. Except they're not. In the last ten years wages have risen faster than Jobseeker's Allowance, and the OBR tells us wages will power ahead of inflation in the next four years.

Then Nick Clegg tried to claim Labour was being inconsistent to low paid public service workers. We back a 1 per cent pay freeze, so why not a 1 per cent benefits cap? Because we've always said that 1 per cent should be an average with a tougher squeeze for the best paid public servants to fund higher pay rises for the lowest paid.

It's all fairly desperate stuff from a government that's trying at all costs to avoid admitting that the lion's share of the savings will come from working families' tax credits. So the real question in next week's debate is this: how can the government justify cutting working families' tax credits to pay for their failure to get Britain back to work - when millionaires are being given a tax cut? Right now working people are being hit with a double whammy. Wages are stagnant and tax credits are being slashed whilst at the same time the cost of living goes through the roof as anyone who boarded a train today will tell you.

The basic truth that IDS won't confront is simple. The best way to get welfare spending down is to get Britain back to work. But his much vaunted welfare revolution is in tatters. The Work Programme is literally worse than doing nothing. Universal Credit is beset with IT problems and has already been raided to pay for rising dole bills. Now the benefit cap is being pushed to the back end of the year because it’s a mess. Next week's Welfare Uprating Bill does nothing to address any of this. It does nothing to create a single new job.

More than half of the people currently out of work have been so for more than six months but the government isn’t lifting a finger to help. The Youth Contract is nowhere to be seen and the all too predictable result is youth unemployment still hovering around a million. That's why this government should be looking at far more concerted action to get Britain back to work with ideas like Labour's proposed tax on bankers' bonuses to create a fund big enough to get over 100,000 young people back into jobs.

There will plenty more smoke and mirrors from the government over the coming months but they can't disguise the reality of this Bill. It is a strivers’ tax which hammers hardworking families. The vast majority of the households hit are in work. Those are the people this government wants to cover the cost of their failure whilst 8,000 millionaires receive a tax cut worth an average of £107,500. If this government wants a battle over fairness whilst they are taking from hardworking families to fund a tax cut for the wealthiest, Labour is ready to take it on.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith outside Number 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

Photo: Getty
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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.