Why the Welfare Uprating Bill deserves to be defeated

Osborne's plan to cut benefits will force more of the poorest families to choose between heating and eating.

After weeks of increasingly fractious debate, MPs will vote today on the government’s Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill, which enshrines in law George Osborne’s plan to raise benefits by 1 per cent per year for the next three years, rather than in line with price increases. With the support of almost all Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs, the bill will easily pass the House of Commons (Labour, to its credit, will vote against it) but here are four reasons why it deserves to be defeated.

1. It will force even more of the poorest families to choose between heating and eating

By raising benefits by 1 per cent, rather than in line with inflation, which stood at 2.2 per cent in September 2012 (the month traditionally used to calculate benefit increases), the coalition will leave the poorest families even more vulnerable to fluctuations in food and energy prices. Inflation is forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility to be 2.6 per cent in September 2013 and 2.2 per cent in September 2014, meaning that those families affected will have suffered a cumulative loss of four per cent of income by the end of the period. For many, this will mean being forced to choose between heating their home and feeding their family.

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported yesterday, 2.5 million households without someone in work will lose an average of £215 per year in 2015-16, while seven million households with someone in work will lose an average of £165 per year. If, as in recent years, inflation rises faster than expected, these losses will be even greater.

2. It will damage the economy by reducing real incomes

When wages are stagnant and unemployment is high, benefit payments automatically increase in order to limit the fall in consumer demand. While government borrowing rises as a result, these "automatic stabilisers" have long been recognised as an essential tool of economic policy. In October 2012, George Osborne remarked: "We have never argued that you stop what economists call the automatic stabilisers operating - the lower tax receipts and extra government payments [such as higher benefits] that follow if, for example, the global economy turns down." Since those on low incomes are forced to spend, rather than save, what little they receive, they automatically stimulate growth.

But Osborne’s decision to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent will reduce the effectiveness of the automatic stabilisers as payments will now fall, rather than rise, in line with inflation, reducing real-terms incomes. As a result, Britain’s anaemic economy will be even more prone to recession.

3. Low wages aren't a reason to cut benefits

In seeking to justify the bill, the Conservatives have repeatedly highlighted the fact that in recent years benefits have risen faster than private sector wages (see their latest poster). Since 2007, the former have increased by an average of 20 per cent (in line with inflation), while the latter have increased by 11.4 per cent.

But this is an argument for increasing wages (for instance, by ensuring greater payment of the living wage), not for cutting benefits. Many of those whose wages have failed to keep pace with inflation rely on in-work benefits such as tax credits to protect their living standards. The government's decision to cut these benefits in real-terms (60 per cent of the real-terms cut falls on working families) will further squeeze their disposable income.

When Iain Duncan Smith says that benefits have risen faster than wages, he is really complaining that wages have risen more slowly than inflation (and are expected to continue to do so until at least 2014). But rather than prompting the government to slash benefits, this grim statistic should encourage it to pursue a genuine growth strategy that ensures more people have access to adequately paid employment.

Finally, while benefits have increased faster than wages in the last five years, this is a temporary quirk caused by the recession. Until now, their value relative to wages has plummeted. In 1979, unemployment benefit was worth 22 per cent of average weekly earnings. Today, it is worth just 15 per cent.

4. There are fairer ways to reduce the deficit

The coalition isn't wrong when it says the deficit, which stood at £121.6bn last year, needs to be reduced (although at a pace commensurate with the state of the economy). But there are fairer ways to raise revenue than cutting benefits for the poorest workers and jobseekers. While reducing welfare payments, the government is simultaneously cutting the top rate of income tax on earnings over £150,000 from 50p to 45p, a measure that will benefit the average income-millionaire by £107,500 a year. Were the government to reverse this measure, it could expect to raise around £3bn a year, more than enough to fund inflation-linked rises in benefits.

Even in the first year of the 50p rate, when temporary forestalling meant many avoided it (for instance, by bringing forward income to 2009-10, the year before the new rate took effect - a trick they could only have played once), the tax raised an extra £1.1bn. This alone is enough to meet the annual cost of increasing benefits in line with inflation (the government expects to save £0.9bn in 2014-15 by capping increases at 1 per cent). But rather than balancing the budget on the backs of the richest (just 1.5 per cent earn more than £150,000), the government has chosen to do so on the backs of the poorest.

George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street on 7 January 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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