How the number of housing benefit claimants has soared under the coalition

New figures show that 320,738 more people are claiming housing benefit than in May 2010.

At every opportunity, Iain Duncan Smith and other Conservative ministers seek to give the impression that they're reducing the number of benefit claimants, counterposing themselves to Labour - "the welfare party". But as so often, the statistics tell a different story.

The latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that the number of housing benefit claimants rose by 40,526 to 5.1 million in the year to May 2013, an increase of 320,738 since the coalition came to power. Of the total, nearly a million (987,610) are in work, a rise of 52 per cent (337,059) since May 2010. 

May 2010 4,7521,526

May 2011 4,879,182

May 2012 5,031,738 

Jan 2013 5,070,291  

Feb 2013 5,078,523  

Mar 2013 5,060,689  

April 2013 5,062,172  

May 2013 5,072,264  

It's a reminder that by imposing punitive welfare cuts (the benefit cap, the bedroom tax), rather than addressing the underlying structural causes of the inflated housing benefit bill (substandard wages, the lack of affordable housing, long-term unemployment), the government will only increase the number forced to rely on state subsidy to stay in their homes.

Before the recent Spending Review, Boris Johnson and Vince Cable, among others, urged George Osborne to remove the cap on the cap on councils' borrowing and allow them to build more affordable housing. Boris said:

We should allow London’s councils to borrow more for house building - as they do on continental Europe - since the public sector clearly gains a bankable asset and there is no need for this to appear on the books as public borrowing.

In policy terms, it is a no-brainer. The Chartered Institute of Housing estimates that raising the caps by £7bn could enable the construction of 60,000 homes over the next five years, creating 23,500 jobs and adding £5.6bn to the economy. But for almost entirely ideological reasons, Osborne refused to act. As Vince Cable commented on The Andrew Marr Show last month: 

Well that’s where the big gap is [social housing] and certainly as Liberal Democrats at conference, we’re going to be arguing how the government through local councils should be doing much more to build social housing. Absolutely right, that is a big problem area.  Nothing like enough has been done.
There is a better way to reduce the benefit bill than the coalition's salami-slicing: building 1.25 million affordable homes over five years (the level required to meet need), extending use of the living wage and investing more in skills and training. After the government's failure, it will be up to Labour to demonstrate it. 
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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