How Labour can offer something for something on welfare

A two-tier system of benefits for job seekers, with higher entitlements for those with strong work records, could be funded by reducing spending on mortgage interest.

This is set to be a big week for Labour. Today Ed Balls launched a foray into pensioner benefits, later this week Ed Miliband is set to address the question of working age welfare. The question is what principle (or combination of principles) should underpin any new approach. The shadow chancellor’s announcement today points towards more means-testing but in January, Miliband defended universal benefits and since then Liam Byrne has promised that Labour would "strengthen the old principle of contribution". 

Means-testing and the contributory principle are, of course, uneasy bedfellows; one judges eligibility by what people need to take out of a system, the other by what people have put in. Labour should plump for more emphasis on the latter. This matters most for working age welfare, which has been haemorrhaging support in recent years. International evidence shows that the UK has one of the least generous welfare systems for the unemployed –and one of those with the weakest relationship between what people have paid in and what they get out. The two are linked: people tend to support systems with a stronger contributory element.

In a paper published today Demos argues that the government should create a two-tier system of benefits for job seekers, with higher entitlements for those with strong work records. This would end the ‘nothing for something’ system, in which many people contribute over a number of years, only to find themselves entitled to very little when they require help. This would be paid for by reducing spending on the Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI) scheme, which currently covers the interest on up to £200,000 of loans or mortgages for homeowners out of work, up to a maximum of two years.

The principle behind this is that if people make the choice to take on a mortgage, they should also insure themselves against the associated risks. Homeowners losing their entitlement to SMI would instead be auto-enrolled into mortgage payment protection insurance, leaving them to choose to not cover themselves or to purchase insurance for mortgage interest payments at a cost of £33 a month at most - less than the price of an average mobile phone bill. The money saved from this change would allow for a higher payments for those with strong work records – roughly £95 a week compared to the £71.70 that all job seekers currently get for at least six months.

These changes would promote personal responsibility, through homeowners insuring themselves against risk incurred by their own choices. They would engender reciprocity, through a system which rewarding contribution. And they would avoid increasing the deficit by reallocating existing spending, rather than adding new commitments. 

Duncan O'Leary is deputy director of Demos

A street cleaner passes the Jobcentre Plus office on January 18, 2012 in Bath, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Duncan O’Leary is deputy director of Demos

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.