PMQs review: Cameron falls into Labour's "bedroom tax" trap

By repeatedly insisting that the "bedroom tax" was not a tax, the Prime Minister gave the phrase new life.

One of Ed Miliband's boldest decisions since becoming Labour leader has been to target the coalition's welfare cuts and today's PMQs saw an all-out assault on the "bedroom tax". For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the government's plan to cut housing benefit for those deemed to have more living space than they need, such as a spare bedroom. Social housing tenants with one extra room will lose 14 per cent of their benefit, while those with two or more will lose 25 per cent.  

The government argues that this is another necessary measure to reduce the ballooning housing benefit bill (which is largely due to extortionate rents and substandard wages) but Miliband highlighted the case of a mother with two sons in the army who would lose out while they were away "serving their country". He went on to warn that two-thirds of those affected are disabled (many of whom require an extra room due to their disability) and that it would encourage social housing tenants, "the most vulnerable", to move to the more expensive private sector, wiping out any savings from the policy as the housing benefit bill rises. Miliband also smartly contrasted the Tories' "bedroom tax" with their opposition to a "mansion tax", brandishing a letter from the party to Conservative donors asking them to contribute to a fighting fund against a "homes tax". 

Cameron gave little ground in response, pointing out that there was a £50m fund to deal with "difficullt cases" and bluntly asking why it was fair for social housing tenants to receive money for an extra room when private tenants did not. For a self-described "compassionate Conservative", it was a rather compassionless reply. As Cameron's answers became increasingly ill-tempered, Miliband deftly weaved in a reference to last night's vote on equal marriage: "He shouldn't get so het up. After all, he's got almost half his parliamentary party behind him." Unsurprisingly, the line went down well with both sides of the House. 

The PM's best moment came when he remarked of Miliband: "we know all the things he's against, we are beginning to wonder what on earth he's for?" If Labour is opposed to the "bedroom tax", the "strivers' tax", the "granny tax", the "toddler tax", how would it reduce public spending? Would it introduce a "mansion tax"? Miliband gave the stock reply that "the clue's in the title - Prime Minister's Questions - he's supposed to try and answer them". But this riposte, while acceptable in 2010, is less impressive halfway through the parliament, with Labour MPs increasingly troubled by the perceived lack of policy detail from their leader.

After Miliband had used up his six questions, Labour MPs continued to challenge Cameron over the "bedroom tax" in a well coordinated assault. An increasingly exasperated Cameron repeated that the "bedroom tax" was not a tax but, in doing so, he unwittingly repeated Labour's attack line. Whether the PM likes it or not, when voters hear him refer to the "bedroom tax" that is what they will call it. Across the floor, Miliband and Ed Balls smiled contentedly in response. Their work for the day was done. 

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in London, on February 06, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
Show Hide image

Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496