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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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