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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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