Labour's disastrous new line of attack on the benefit cap: it's too soft

By denouncing the government for still allowing some families to "live a life on welfare", the party has begun an arms race it can only lose.

Aware that the £26,000 benefit cap is one of the government's most popular policies (a recent YouGov poll found that 79 per cent of people, including 71 per cent of Labour voters, support it), Labour has long struggled to settle on a response.

It initially (and rightly) opposed the policy altogether but later agreed to support a cap provided that it took into account regional variations in housing costs. As shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne argued, "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 now, as the policy is introduced nationally, Byrne is pursuing a new line of attack: the cap isn't tough enough. He declared today that "ministers have bodged the rules so the cap won’t affect Britain’s 4,000 largest families and it does nothing to stop people living a life on welfare."

The reason 4,000 families are unaffected by the cap is because until they are transferred to Universal Credit (which may be some time), only housing benefit will be deducted, meaning that they can still receive more than £26,000 in other benefits. Labour notes that "under the government’s plans, workless lone parents with 7 or more children or workless couples with 6 or more children will slip through the full benefit cap because of way the system is designed. An out of work couple with 10 children will still receive benefits £15,000 over the limit, meaning they earn £41,000 in out of work benefits a year."

It's easy to see why this line of attack appeals to Labour. It allows the party to simultaneously denounce the coalition as hopelessly incompetent and to present itself as 'tougher' than the government on benefits. But it is both politically and morally dubious. By attacking the government for allowing some families to claim more than £26,000, Byrne undermines his own policy of a regional benefit cap, which would almost certainly mean a higher allowance for London residents. It's also dismaying to see him echo George Osborne's rhetoric and take aim at those "living out a life on welfare." The truth is that the majority of the unemployed are desperately trying to find work (with little support from the government) and, in most cases, will have been employed and paid taxes for years before the recession. The number who choose benefits as a lifestyle (or appear to do so) is so small as to be almost statistically irrelevant. As I noted earlier, the arbitrary cap of £26,000 will mostly punish large families who fall on hard times through no fault of their own.  

While rightly seeking to bring down social security spending through measures such as the living wage and more affordable housing, Labour must at all costs avoid entering an arms race with the Tories on welfare (one it can only lose). But with his opportunistic attack on the cap, that is precisely what Byrne has done. 

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Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne said the benefit cap would do nothing to stop 4,000 families "living a life on welfare". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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It's Gary Lineker 1, the Sun 0

The football hero has found himself at the heart of a Twitter storm over the refugee children debate.

The Mole wonders what sort of topsy-turvy universe we now live in where Gary Lineker is suddenly being called a “political activist” by a Conservative MP? Our favourite big-eared football pundit has found himself in a war of words with the Sun newspaper after wading into the controversy over the age of the refugee children granted entry into Britain from Calais.

Pictures published earlier this week in the right-wing press prompted speculation over the migrants' “true age”, and a Tory MP even went as far as suggesting that these children should have their age verified by dental X-rays. All of which leaves your poor Mole with a deeply furrowed brow. But luckily the British Dental Association was on hand to condemn the idea as unethical, inaccurate and inappropriate. Phew. Thank God for dentists.

Back to old Big Ears, sorry, Saint Gary, who on Wednesday tweeted his outrage over the Murdoch-owned newspaper’s scaremongering coverage of the story. He smacked down the ex-English Defence League leader, Tommy Robinson, in a single tweet, calling him a “racist idiot”, and went on to defend his right to express his opinions freely on his feed.

The Sun hit back in traditional form, calling for Lineker to be ousted from his job as host of the BBC’s Match of the Day. The headline they chose? “Out on his ears”, of course, referring to the sporting hero’s most notable assets. In the article, the tabloid lays into Lineker, branding him a “leftie luvvie” and “jug-eared”. The article attacked him for describing those querying the age of the young migrants as “hideously racist” and suggested he had breached BBC guidelines on impartiality.

All of which has prompted calls for a boycott of the Sun and an outpouring of support for Lineker on Twitter. His fellow football hero Stan Collymore waded in, tweeting that he was on “Team Lineker”. Leading the charge against the Murdoch-owned title was the close ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Channel 4 News economics editor, Paul Mason, who tweeted:

Lineker, who is not accustomed to finding himself at the centre of such highly politicised arguments on social media, responded with typical good humour, saying he had received a bit of a “spanking”.

All of which leaves the Mole with renewed respect for Lineker and an uncharacteristic desire to watch this weekend’s Match of the Day to see if any trace of his new activist persona might surface.


I'm a mole, innit.