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: 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.