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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.