Why today’s childcare changes won’t help the squeezed middle

The government’s plans will not undo the damage from cuts to tax credits and Sure Start.

We know parents are struggling with the cost of childcare right now. Under David Cameron, childcare costs are eating further and further into household incomes. Research from the Daycare Trust shows costs have risen by 7% in the last year alone, while average hourly earnings have fallen. In one central London nursery, you would have to pay an eye-watering £42,000 a year for one full-time nursery place.

At the same time, David Cameron has been cutting support to families, including cuts to tax credits, child benefit and maternity support. By the next election, families with children will have been hit with cuts of £15bn in financial support over the course of the parliament. By 2015, these cuts will amount to £7bn a year, ten times the value of the £750m in childcare support the government is now proposing.

Worse still, under the government’s childcare plans, not a single family will get a penny before May 2015. But families need real help coping with childcare bills this year, not a vague promise of help in two and a half years’ time.

Many low and middle income earners will lose out under these plans. Families claiming childcare support through tax credits have already seen this support cut by up to £1,560 a year, yet the government’s plans will not undo the damage for many of these families.

But while many families on modest incomes are losing out, if you earn £300,000 you will benefit. The government claims this is fair – but then this is the government that is prioritising a £100,000 tax break to millionaires, so we know what David Cameron’s definition of fairness is.

Many families will lose out in other ways too. A couple who both pay basic rate tax and have one child can currently get just over £1,800 in support through the childcare voucher scheme. Under the government’s plans, this will fall to £1,200 – another blow to household incomes.

So the childcare squeeze will continue. At the same time, the government is threatening the quality of childcare with their plans to increase the number of toddlers that nursery staff look after and there are now 401 fewer Sure Start Children’s Centres than in 2010.

The government should provide immediate help to families that are struggling, not just more vague promises of help further down the line.

David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg visit Wandsworth Day Nursery on March 19, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.