Miliband backs new welfare cap and brands Labour "the party of work"

In his speech on welfare, Miliband will announce that Labour would cap "structural welfare spending" and will criticise those "who could work and aren’t doing so".

Conservative strategists are fond of recalling that when focus groups were asked to choose the image they most associate with Labour at the last election they chose one of "a lazy slob" drinking a can of beer and watching daytime TV. In an attempt to reinforce the perception of Labour as the party for "the scroungers", David Cameron branded it "the welfare party" at PMQs last month. It is a label that Ed Miliband will directly reject in his speech today when he presents Labour as "the party of work" and attacks "the denial of responsibility by those who could work and aren’t doing so". He will say:

Labour - the party of work - the clue is in the name. Our party was founded on the principles of work. We have always been against the denial of opportunity through the denial of work. And against the denial of responsibility by those who could work and aren’t doing so...This country needs to be a nation where people who can work, do work. Not a country where people who can work are on benefits.

It's a message that will reassure those Labour MPs such as Frank Field and Simon Danczuk who warn that the party has positioned itself on the wrong side of the divide on welfare, but will trouble those who view such language as redolent of the Tories' "striver"/"scrounger" dichotomy.

As expected, Miliband will also announce that Labour would impose a cap on "structural welfare spending", a pre-emption of George Osborne's plan to introduce a new limit on annually managed expenditure (which includes volatile and demand-led items such as social security payments, debt interest and EU contributions) in this month's Spending Review. The cap, which would be introduced in 2015-16 and would then operate over the three years of each spending review, is aimed at separating the cyclical costs of social security, which increase at times of economic stagnation, from the long-term drivers of higher spending such as extortionate rents, inadequate wages and persistent unemployment. Rather than adopting the Tory approach of imposing populist cuts such as the "bedroom tax" and the benefit cap, which save little if any money, Miliband will pledge to control costs by "attacking long term problems like persistent unemployment, low pay and housing shortages".

On housing, he will promise to make "immediate savings" by negotiating lower rents with landlords through measures such as bulk purchasing and using some of the savings to build new homes. This should help to end the absurdity of the state devoting 95 per cent of housing spend to subsidising landlords and just 5 per cent to building houses.

Miliband will also pledge to save money by expanding use of the living wage in the public and private sectors (the IFS estimates that for every £1 spent on raising pay to living wage level, around 50p returns to the Treasury in the form of reduced welfare payments and higher tax revenues). He will say: "We can’t afford a low wage economy that just leaves the taxpayer facing greater and greater costs. It is only by changing our economy that we can both keep costs under control and make progress towards a fairer society."

Finally, in perhaps the most significant section of the speech, Miliband will flesh out Labour's long-standing promise to reassert the contributory principle, announcing that the party is considering a higher rate of Jobseeker's Allowance for those who have paid in the most. This is aimed at ending the "nothing for something" problem, which sees those who have contributed for decades offered a paltry £71 per week. Miliband will say:

Currently, after two years of work, someone is entitled to ‘Contributory Job Seekers’ Allowance. They get £71 per week, whether they’ve worked for two years or forty years. Two years of work is a short period to gain entitlement to extra help. And £71 is in no sense a proper recognition of how much somebody who has worked for many decades has paid into the system.

Significantly, after the Tories claimed that Labour's only welfare policies would increase, not reduce spending, he will promise that any change will be "cost-neutral". The proposed higher rate of JSA would be funded by increasing the qualification period for the contributory version of the benefit from its current level of two years. As Miliband will say, "A longer period of qualification would mean some new claimants would have to work longer than they expected before being entitled to extra support if they lose their job. But greater support for those who have worked for a longer time, providing real recognition of their contribution."

In response, expect the Tories to argue that Labour can't credibly pledge to reduce welfare spending when its only proposed cut - withdrawing the winter fuel allowance from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners - would save just £100m and when it refuses to support the £26,000 cap on household benefits. Labour's current policy is to support a regional version of the cap which takes into account variations in housing prices. Property prices in London are 61 per cent higher than the national average and, as a result, nearly half of those households affected by the cap are in the capital. As Liam Byrne argued when the policy was first proposed last year, "While all that £500 a week might get you in central London is a one-bedroom apartment, in Rotherham, Yorkshire it would get you a six-bedroom house. How can a 'one-size-fits-all' cap be fair to working people in both London and Rotherham?

But the question the party will be pressed to answer is what level he cap would be set at in London and elsewhere. While a regional approach would mean a cap below £26,000 in some areas, it would almost certainly mean a cap above this level in the capital. The political problem for Labour is that most voters already regard the existing cap as too generous. A higher benefit cap in the capital would inevitably prompt the accusation that poorer areas are unfairly being asked to subsidise housing costs for Londoners. For now, Labour's answer is that it would ask an independent body, comparable to the Low Pay Commission, to set the level of the cap, but this will remain a headache for the party and one the Tories will take every opportunity to exploit. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.