The questions Labour needs to answer about its regional benefit cap

Why support a regional benefit cap but not regional benefit levels? And what level would the cap be set at it in London?

With the introduction of the £26,000 benefit cap in four London boroughs this week (see my blog from Monday for five reasons why the cap is wrong), Labour has been challenged again to say whether it would keep the policy if elected. The party's answer is still that it supports a cap but one that takes into account regional variations in housing costs. 

Ed Balls said on LBC this morning that the party would "definitely keep" the cap, so long as it is "set in the right way". On Question Time last night, Caroline Flint argued:

I also believe in a benefit cap but one that can work and the problem is that because there are different housing costs around the country, the government have introduced this sort of standardised benefit cap that is going to cause problems. We argued that, actually, we should have localised benefit caps that did reflect some of the housing costs

There is logic to Labour's position. House prices in London are 61 per cent higher than the national average and, as a result, nearly half of those households affected by the cap are in the capital. As Liam Byrne argued when the policy was first proposed last year, "While all that £500 a week might get you in central London is a one-bedroom apartment, in Rotherham, Yorkshire it would get you a six-bedroom house. How can a 'one-size-fits-all' cap be fair to working people in both London and Rotherham?"

But the proposal invites the Conservative rejoinder: if you support a regional benefit cap, why not regional benefit levels? When Michael Howard made this point on Question Time, Flint replied: "There is a different issue when it comes to housing, if you look around the country, Michael, you can see that there are disparities in terms of housing costs." In other words, she dodged the question. There is a strong argument against regional benefit levels (and regional public sector pay) - that they would depress local economies at a time when they desperately need stimulus - but it is one that Labour has failed to make so far. 

The other question that the party needs to answer is what level the cap would be set at in London and elsewhere. While a regional approach would mean a cap below £26,000 in some areas, it would almost certainly mean a cap above this level in the capital. The political problem for Labour is that most voters already regard the existing cap as too generous. As the Telegraph's Iain Martin tweeted this morning, "If Labour says £500 per week benefit cap in London is too low, what should it be set at instead? £700? A grand?" A higher benefit cap in the capital would inevitably prompt the accusation that poorer areas are unfairly being asked to subsidise housing costs for Londoners. 

The overwhelming public support for the cap (79 per cent of people, including 71 per cent of Labour voters, back the policy) has convinced Labour that it can't be seen to oppose the policy unconditionally. But without further development, the alternative of a regional cap risks falling apart under Tory scrutiny.  

A general view of 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, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Republican nightmare shows no sign of ending

The Republican establishment is no closer to identifying the candidate who can stop Trump or Cruz, while Hilary Clinton finds herself in a similar position to Barack Obama eight years ago.

After being cruelly denied by the people of Iowa, we were finally treated to a Donald Trump victory speech in New Hampshire last night. While Trump’s win will come as a “yuge” shock to anyone waking up from a yearlong nap, it was very much in line with more recent expectations. More surprising is John Kasich’s second place finish ahead of the tightly packed trio of Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

Rubio’s underperforming his polling average by about four points at time of writing (with 89 per cent of precincts reporting) – perhaps partly the natural erosion of his post-Iowa bump, perhaps also due to his mauling at the hands of Chris Christie in Saturday night’s debate. Meanwhile Ted Cruz’s 12 per cent compares favourably with past Iowa winners’ New Hampshire performances: Mike Huckabee got 11 per cent in 2008 and Rick Santorum 9 per cent in 2012, but neither came close to winning the nomination.

The result offers little help to those “establishment” Republicans who’d been planning to coalesce around whichever of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Marco Rubio emerged from New Hampshire in the best position.

Christie and Carly Fiorina are probably done. Both got less than 2 per cent in Iowa; both finished in single digits in New Hampshire after focusing heavily on the state; both are stuck at the bottom of the national polls, and neither has raised all that much money (relatively speaking). Christie is heading back to New Jersey to “take a deep breath”, “get a change of clothes” and “make a decision” tomorrow.

But who will party elites rally around to stop Trump and Cruz? Kasich, who came second in New Hampshire but is on just 3 per cent nationally? Rubio, who beat expectations in Iowa and is best of the bunch in national polls but disappointed badly tonight after a terrible debate performance? Or Bush, who’s had more than $75 million spent on him by the “Right to Rise” super PAC with just three per cent in Iowa and 11 per cent in New Hampshire to show for it? Nobody has won either party’s nomination in the modern primary era without a top-two finish in New Hampshire – does either Rubio or Bush really seem like the candidate to break that trend?

Jeb does have plenty of money and organisation, and is guaranteed some extra support from one prominent establishment Republican in South Carolina: his brother. George W has recorded an ad for the Jeb-supporting “Right to Rise” PAC, calling his brother “a leader who will keep our country safe”, which is already running on South Carolina TV (and which ran in New Hampshire during the Super Bowl). He will also join his brother on the campaign trail in the run up to the primary. Bush 43 left office very unpopular and remains the most disliked former President, but he is very popular with Republicans. A Bloomberg/Selzer poll in November found that 77 per cent of them have a favourable opinion of him, making him far more popular than any of this year’s candidates. (Jeb calls his brother “the most popular Republican alive”, which is a bit of a stretch. Nancy Reagan? Clint Eastwood?)

Trump leads convincingly from Cruz in the most recent polls in both South Carolina and Nevada, but there haven’t been any polls from either state since the Iowa caucus. Neither state is as friendly territory for “establishment” candidates as New Hampshire: South Carolina’s electorate is much more evangelical, and Nevada’s much more conservative. Newt Gingrich won South Carolina handily in 2012 and Huckabee came a close second in 2008. Cruz and Trump are doing best with evangelicals and very conservative voters this time around. Thanks to the state’s winner-take-all rules, whoever prevails in South Carolina will get the small ego boost of going into Super Tuesday with the most delegates.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders secured a big win over Hillary Clinton (60 per cent to 38 per cent with 90 per cent of precincts reporting). What seemed incredibly unlikely a year ago has been almost certain for the past week or so. As he heads south and west, though, Sanders faces a new challenge: winning over African American voters.

Just two per cent of those who voted in the two Democratic contests so far have been black; in the next ones that number will be a lot higher. (In 2008, it was 15 per cent in Nevada and 55 per cent in South Carolina). In national polls, Clinton holds a 58-point lead among African American voters compared to her six-point lead with white voters, and she’s 31 points ahead overall in FiveThirtyEight’s average of South Carolina polls (all taken pre-Iowa).

Ironically, Clinton now finds herself in a similar position to the one Barack Obama was in when battling her for the nomination in 2008: heading to South Carolina, having won Iowa but lost New Hampshire, hoping African American voters will help her win big and regain the momentum as we head towards Super Tuesday.