How Cameron and Clegg could reach a deal on cutting pensioner benefits

The coalition could pledge to means-test benefits from April 2015 and promise to increase them the previous year to ensure no one is left out of pocket.

With both Labour and the Lib Dems no longer committed to preserving universal benefits for pensioners, what's preventing the Tories executing their own U-turn? The answer is David Cameron's 2010 "read my lips" pledge to protect them (ironically made under pressure from Labour), which was subsequently included in the Coalition Agreement. After seeing the damage inflicted on the Lib Dems by their volte face over tuition fees, Cameron is determined to avoid anything that could provoke claims of betrayal, not least due to the renowned power of the grey vote (the demographic among which UKIP is performing strongest). 

But as Nick Clegg pointed out on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday, the coalition's pledge to "protect key benefits for older people such as the winter fuel allowance, free TV licences, free bus travel, and free eye tests and prescriptions" only applies up to May 2015, while the current Spending Review is concerned with the 2015-16 spending period. The difficulty for Cameron is that six weeks of the period fall before the next general election, meaning any decision to means-test them would technically breach his pledge. As a result, Tory hopes of further welfare cuts, which would allow the government to limit cuts to areas such as policing and defence, have evaporated. As Clegg again stated yesterday, he is only prepared to consider additional cuts (such as the abolition of housing benefit for 25-year-olds and the limiting of child benefit to two children) if the coalition "starts at the top" by curbing benefits for the wealthy. In response, the Tories reaffirmed Cameron's 2010 pledge: "David Cameron promised to protect the benefits for pensioners who've worked hard and done the right thing - and we've kept that promise. Conservatives want to do more to fix the welfare system so that it works for the hard-working people who pay for it."

But with the Treasury still only a third of the way to meeting its Spending Review target of £11.5bn cuts (a total that will be far harder to reach with welfare cuts off the table), it's worth noting one way the coalition could resolve this conundrum. The government could announce that one or more of the benefits will be means-tested from April 2015 and increase payments to pensioners the previous year to ensure no one is left out of pocket. While administratively complex, this would offer the coalition a chance to break the deadlock on welfare. As Philip Hammond, Vince Cable and others battle to protect their departments from the full force of Osborne's axe, it's exactly the kind of imaginative compromise both sides might be tempted to explore. 

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg makes a speech at the G8 Open for Growth - Trade, Tax and Transparency conference at Lancaster House in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.