Cutting benefits for teenage mothers is a policy based on prejudice alone

The measure proposed by the 40 Group of Tory MPs will do little to reduce the welfare bill, while further stigmatising an already marginalised group.

While Iain Duncan Smith tours the studios defending the government's punitive benefit cap, other Conservative MPs have been busy dreaming up new welfare cuts. In a measure seemingly inspired by former social security secretary Peter Lilley, who denounced "young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue", the 40 Group of Tory MPs (so called because they represent the 40 most marginal seats won by the party in 2010) has proposed removing benefits from teenage mothers unless they live "with their parents or in supervised hostel accommodation". This measure, it says, will leave teenagers "in no doubt that teenage motherhood will not lead to an automatic right to subsidised housing and other benefits". 

As in the case of Duncan Smith and his "belief" that people are moving into work as a result of the benefit cap, they've no evidence for their claim that teenagers have children in order to claim benefits (as they concede), but they're prepared to allow their prejudices to shape policy all the same.

Before addressing the proposal itself, it's worth noting that the teenage pregnancy rate is currently at its lowest level since records began in 1969 (not a statistic you'll find in the group's literature) and that many young mothers already live with their families or in sheltered housing. But while the number affected would be too small to make any significant dent in the £201bn social security bill, the measure would cause much unnecessary harm. It would further stigmatise an already marginalised group that deserves to be supported, not punished. In addition, as Sue Cohen of the Single Parent Action Network, points out, the coalition has already made large cuts to sheltered housing. Is there to be new investment? If not, she says, the government "is consigning their children to even deeper poverty". 

Finally, forcing young mothers to remain with their parents contradicts measures such as the benefit cap , the "bedroom tax" and non-dependent deductions (which reduces housing benefit for those families with a child aged over 18), which are ostensibly designed to encourage families to downsize.  

At a time when Britain has no shortage of social and economic problems, it's genuinely dismaying to see the new generation of Tory MPs resort to attacking the same old targets.

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The 40 Group of Tory MPs said teenage mothers would have to live "with their parents or in supervised hostel accommodation" to claim benefits. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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By refusing to stand down, Jeremy Corbyn has betrayed the British working classes

The most successful Labour politicians of the last decades brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes but also an understanding of how free market economies work.

Jeremy Corbyn has defended his refusal to resign the leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds that to do so would be betraying all his supporters in the country at large. But by staying on as leader of the party and hence dooming it to heavy defeat in the next general election he would be betraying the interests of the working classes this country. More years of Tory rule means more years of austerity, further cuts in public services, and perpetuation of the gross inequality of incomes. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Seema Malhotra, made the same point when she told Newsnight that “We have an unelectable leader, and if we lose elections then the price of our failure is paid by the working people of this country and their families who do not have a government to stand up for them.”

Of course, in different ways, many leading figures in the Labour movement, particularly in the trade unions, have betrayed the interests of the working classes for several decades. For example, in contrast with their union counterparts in the Scandinavian countries who pressurised governments to help move workers out of declining industries into expanding sectors of the economy, many British trade union leaders adopted the opposite policy. More generally, the trade unions have played a big part in the election of Labour party leaders, like Corbyn, who were unlikely to win a parliamentary election, thereby perpetuating the rule of Tory governments dedicated to promoting the interests of the richer sections of society.

And worse still, even in opposition Corbyn failed to protect the interests of the working classes. He did this by his abysmal failure to understand the significance of Tory economic policies. For example, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had finished presenting the last budget, in which taxes were reduced for the rich at the expense of public services that benefit everybody, especially the poor, the best John McConnell could do – presumably in agreement with Corbyn – was to stand up and mock the Chancellor for having failed to fulfill his party’s old promise to balance the budget by this year! Obviously neither he nor Corbyn understood that had the government done so the effects on working class standards of living would have been even worse. Neither of them seems to have learnt that the object of fiscal policy is to balance the economy, not the budget.

Instead, they have gone along with Tory myth about the importance of not leaving future generations with the burden of debt. They have never asked “To whom would future generations owe this debt?” To their dead ancestors? To Martians? When Cameron and his accomplices banged on about how important it was to cut public expenditures because the average household in Britain owed about £3,000, they never pointed out that this meant that the average household in Britain was a creditor to the tune of about the same amount (after allowing for net overseas lending). Instead they went along with all this balanced budget nonsense. They did not understand that balancing the budget was just the excuse needed to justify the prime objective of the Tory Party, namely to reduce public expenditures in order to be able to reduce taxes on the rich. For Corbyn and his allies to go along with an overriding objective of balancing the budget is breathtaking economic illiteracy. And the working classes have paid the price.

One left-wing member of the panel on Question Time last week complained that the interests of the working classes were ignored by “the elite”. But it is members of the elite who have been most successful in promoting the interests of the working classes. The most successful pro-working class governments since the war have all been led mainly by politicians who would be castigated for being part of the elite, such as Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Tony Blair, and many others too numerous to list. They brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes (from which some of them, like me, had emerged) and reduce inequality in society but also an understanding of how free market economies work and how to deal with its deficiencies. This happens to be more effective than ignorant rhetoric that can only stroke the egos and satisfy the vanity of demagogues

People of stature like those I have singled out above seem to be much more rare in politics these days. But there is surely no need to go to other extreme and persist with leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, a certain election loser, however pure his motives and principled his ambitions.

Wilfred Beckerman is an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and was, for several years in the 1970s, the economics correspondent for the New Statesman