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

Getty
Show Hide image

When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.