Labour tries to avoid falling into Osborne's welfare trap

Balls signals that he is willing to support the Chancellor's new curbs on claimants, including a seven-day wait for benefits.

Every time that George Osborne announces new restrictions on benefits it has as much to do with tripping up Labour as it does with saving money. Aware of how much support the party's perceived softness on claimants cost it in 2010, he aims to paint it as "the welfare party". 

Having opposed most of the £18bn of cuts previously announced by the coalition, it is a trap Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are now keen to avoid. After Osborne announced in the Budget that he would unveil plans to cap Annually Managed Expenditure (AME) in the Spending Review, (the area of public spending that includes volatile and demand-led items such as welfare, debt interest and EU contributions), Labour pre-empted him by outlining its own cap on "structural" welfare spending and announced that it would remove Winter Fuel Payments from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners, a (rather successful) attempt to redirect attention on to the main driver of higher social spending: an ageing population. 

In today's review, Osborne announced a series of tougher rules for claimants, including a seven-day wait before they can claim benefits, a duty to learn English (with benefits docked if they fail to attend language classes), the introduction of weekly, rather than fortnightly, visits to the jobcentre for half of all jobseekers, a requirement for all single parents of children aged three or over to prepare for work and a duty for individuals to prepare a CV and register for an online job search before they can receive benefits. 

In response, it was notable that Balls avoided opposing any of the measures outright. He told BBC News: 

We need to look at the detail, obviously. On the welfare things, English language for incoming migrants - definitely. For the seven-day - is it going to be a blank cheque for Wonga? Let's look at the detail. If it saves money and it works, fine.

So, while expressing some scepticism, Balls has essentially accepted the principle of a seven-day wait for benefits provided that it "saves money" (it will, but at a terrible cost to claimants forced to turn to foodbanks) and that it "works" (again, based on Osborne's definition, it will). Nor, the party signalled, will it oppose the requirement for single parents to look for work. 

In his statement, Osborne also served notice of the biggest welfare trap of all. He announced that his new cap on total benefit spending would be set in next year's Budget and would apply from April 2015. Expect him to adopt the toughest limit possible and then challenge Labour to match it. Should it do so, it will be accused of signing up to an unconscionable attack on the poorest. Should it not, it will be accused of failing to control runaway spending. Having signalled that it will not borrow more to reverse cuts to current spending (only to invest in capital projects such as housing), any difference will need to be funded through tax rises. 

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. 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.