The benefit cap will only succeed in harming the weakest and most vulnerable

Instead of the social vivisection currently taking place, lowering the benefits bill requires an agenda that creates jobs, arms people with skills and lowers rents.

Yesterday, four London boroughs, including Haringey, where my Tottenham constituency is located, began piloting the benefit cap before it is rolled out across the country over the course of the year.

Let's begin by confronting the elephant in the room: the cap is a popular policy. In fact, it is the coalition's most popular one by a long stretch, backed by an overwhelming 79 per cent of the public. We can speculate why it has become so popular, whether it is the symptom of an increasingly individualistic country or because the recession has increased suspicion of those in receipt of social security, but we will struggle to contend with its eminently reasonable premise: those out of work should not have a higher income than the average in-work family.
 
That entire households rely on the state to provide every last penny of their budget over many months isn't - in the vast majority of cases at least - a badge of honour but a mark of failure. The difference is who is failing and why. The government and their allies in the press see failure only in the individual. To them, claimants are a separate species, only capable of vegetating on "handouts" (which are inevitably spent on a diet of Special Brew, Golden Virginia and Sky TV) rather than finding work.
 
Our analysis has to be different. We see failure in some individuals but not all - certainly not the majority. We are more likely to find failure in a labour market that is void of jobs, in a skills sector that did not provide adequate training and a childcare system that is beyond the reach of ordinary families. Most of all, we find failure in a housing infrastructure that allows landlords to hoover up an increasingly greater chunk of the nation's welfare bill through extortionate rent increases all the while offering deteriorating conditions and even more overcrowding.
 
Our outrage at the benefit cap isn't that we cannot stand that people in work will be better off than those out of it - we ought to welcome that - but that for all of these institutional failures, it is only the weakest and most vulnerable that are being asked to change. Of the 900 families in Tottenham that are being pushed to the brink of homelessness half are single parents and a quarter are in receipt of the Employment and Support Allowance. Meanwhile, the institutions that failed them are left untouched: fewer affordable homes are being built, rents continue to rise, and many of the jobs being created are underpaid, part-time, insecure and offer no prospects of advancement or training.
 
While satisfying the desire to frame the welfare debate in the lead up to the next election around who can appear "toughest" on "skivers", the benefit cap fails almost every other ambition the government has set itself. For all the government rhetoric about families, parenting and the importance of marriage, it is this cocktail of welfare reforms that provides the formula for family break up - the party that continues to plead for tax incentives for marriage now prides itself on reforms that incentivise divorce and estrangement. For all the talk of extending opportunities to all children of whatever background, the most disadvantaged will now be fed and clothed with a stipend of just 62p a day. Any monies saved now will only boomerang back as the social bill of abject poverty - educational failure, rough sleeping, and yes, hopelessness that leads to crime and unrest - mounts for generations to come.
 
We need to treat the disease, not the symptoms. Instead of the social vivisection currently taking place in Haringey, Enfield, Bromley and Croydon, lowering the benefit bill requires an agenda that creates jobs, arms people with skills and lowers rents (a major house building programme would achieve all three, for instance). If we want to "make work pay" to incentivise people to take jobs when they are available, it is more effective to make significant upward revisions to the minimum wage (an increase of £1.20, rather than 12p, perhaps) rather than condemn families to squalor. All parties should want to lower the benefit bill and all want to make work pay. The difference between this government and ourselves is humanity: they believe homelessness and family break up is a price worth paying, we believe it never can be.

 

Homes on the Falinge Estate, which has been surveyed as the most deprived area in England for a fifth year in a row, on January 8, 2013 in Rochdale. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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