How the Lib Dems broke their promise to block new welfare cuts

The party vowed to block further welfare cuts but the seven-day wait for benefits amounts to a £245m cut.

Before the Spending Review, the Lib Dems repeatedly stated that they would accept no further cuts to welfare. Danny Alexander said in February 2013: 

We've got no plans at all to go back to the welfare budget as part of that process [the Spending Review]. What I'm focused on is finding that £10 billion or so from within the spending the government departments do.

I've got no plans to reopen the welfare issue. We agreed significant measures in the autumn and we're legislating for those at the moment. The balance has to be found from departmental budgets. Everyone's got to play their part.

More recently, Nick Clegg said that he was prepared to consider new cuts but only if George Osborne began by removing benefits, such as Winter Fuel Payments and free bus passes, from wealthy pensioners. "I believe that if you’re going to reopen welfare, it’s only fair to work at the top and work down, not start at the bottom and work up," he said

When Osborne and Cameron responded by reaffirming the Tories' 2010 pledge to protect all pensioner benefits, it appeared welfare spending was off the table. The Chancellor had already taken £21.6bn from the mostly poor and would take no more. 

But when he addressed the Commons yesterday, Osborne did announce further benefit cuts - and he started at the bottom. The new seven-day wait before the unemployed can claim benefits will reduce spending by £245m in 2015-16 (and £765m by 2018). Though some may seek to present it as a "reform", it is a cut. The money that claimants lose from having to wait a week for their benefits (which will force thousands more to turn to food banks) will not be backdated; it has gone for good. The introduction of tougher interview requirements is also expected to reduce spending (by £120m in 2015-16), presumably since those who fail to turn up (often with good reason) will be sanctioned.

It's true that Osborne also announced plans to remove Winter Fuel Payments from pensioners who live in hot countries (defined as those with "an average winter temperature higher than the warmest region of the UK") but this hardly qualifies as a significant reduction; it will save just £30m a year. 

Clegg insisted he would only accept new welfare cuts if the majority of savings came from the wealthy, but, once again, it's the poorest who've been hit. 

Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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