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 three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

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