Labour should make the economic case against welfare cuts

Welfare cuts aren't just bad for the poor, they're bad for growth too. Miliband and Balls should say so.

Labour and other opponents of the government's welfare cuts have so far focused on their unfairness. How can ministers charge social housing tenants for their "spare rooms" (the notorious "bedroom tax"), cut council tax support by 10 per cent (forcing thousands of families to pay the tax for the first time) and cap benefit increases at just 1 per cent while simultaneously handing 13,000 millionaires an average tax cut of £100,000 a year? But in doing so they are in danger of ignoring another important argument against the measures: welfare cuts aren't just bad for the poor, they're bad for growth too. 

When George Osborne announced most of the government's welfare reforms in his first Budget and in the 2010 Spending Review (the bedroom tax was described as "limiting social tenants’ entitlement to appropriately sized homes") it was on the assumption that the economy would be growing at nearly 3 per cent a year (the OBR originally forecast growth of 2.8 per cent in 2012 and 2.9 per cent in 2013). It is now expected to grow by just 0.6 per cent. Rather than cutting into an expanding economy, Osborne will be cutting into a stagnant one. And austerity, as the OBR reminded David Cameron last week, has  consequences. For every £100 of welfare cuts, GDP is reduced by around £60 a year. 

To anyone with an elementary understanding of economics, this will come as no surprise. If the government reduces someone's benefits by £728 a year (the average annual cost of the "bedroom tax"), that's £728 less for that person to spend on goods and services. And since, as Paul Krugman sagely observes, "your spending is my income" (and "my spending is your income"), it's not just the claimant who loses out, it's shops and businesses too.

In addition, since the poor are more likely to spend, rather than save, what little they receive, welfare cuts are around twice as economically harmful as tax increases (the OBR estimates that output is reduced by £60 for every £100 of welfare cuts, compared to £35 for increases in VAT and £30 for increases in income tax). It's for this reason that wise governments allow welfare spending to rise in times of stagnation. While borrowing temporarily increases as a result, higher benefits (known as the  "automatic stabilisers") are an essential means of maintaining consumer demand. 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." In his recent New Statesman essay, Vince Cable similarly claimed: "Unlike the Treasury in the interwar period, which insisted on balanced budgets, the coalition government has been Keynesian in approaching fiscal policy in a broadly counter-cyclical manner by letting stabilisers operate."

But Osborne’s decision to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent (alongside other pro-cyclical measures) runs entirely against such logic. Welfare 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. Welfare cuts, in short, aren't just bad for the poor, they're bad for all of us. And it's time Labour and the left said so.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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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. 

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