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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.