Miliband pledges that a Labour government will scrap the bedroom tax

Labour leader announces: "We’ll scrap the bedroom tax by abolishing the shady schemes of tax loopholes for the privileged few which the Tories keep inventing."

Last month, I revealed that one of Labour's "policy goodies" for conference was likely to be a pledge to scrap the bedroom tax - and Ed Miliband hasn't disappointed.

The party has announced tonight that a Labour government will repeal the measure, which has already forced around half of those tenants affected into rent arrears, a quarter of those for the first time ever. Significantly, rather than merely another policy that Labour would enact "were it in government now", this is a manifesto commitment. 

The National Housing Federation and the National Audit Office have predicted that the measure could end up costing more than it saves by forcing social housing tenants into the more expensive private sector (due to the lack of one-bedroom council properties available) and by increasing rent arrears (which deprives councils of revenue). But in order to demonstrate their commitment to fiscal discipline, Miliband and Ed Balls have still outlined how they will raise the £470m the Treasury claims the measure will save this year.

Labour has said it will: 

- Reverse the £150m tax cut for hedge funds announced in the 2013 Budget.

- Abolish George Osborne's "shares for rights" scheme, which businesses have been using to avoid capital gains tax (shares sold at a profit are exempt) and which the OBR has forecast could cost up to £1bn. 

- Prevent construction firms avoiding tax by falsely listing workers as self-employed. 

Miliband will say tomorrow: 

One Nation Labour is meeting here in Brighton talking about the most important issue facing families in Britain: the cost of living crisis.

Under David Cameron life is getting harder and harder with prices rising faster than wages in 38 of the 39 months that he has been in Downing Street. And working people are an average of almost £1,500 a year worse off under his government.

But we have a Tory-led Government which listens only to a privileged few. Tax cuts for millionaires and tax breaks for hedge funds.

I am leading a different Labour Party, a One Nation Labour Party, which listens to and will stand up for ordinary families like that of Danielle Heard, who I met this week.

We’ll fight for her like she has fought cancer heroically for 14 years. She is disabled and battling cancer again. But now her family must pay £80 a month they can’t afford under this government’s hated bedroom tax.

The bedroom tax – not what the Tories call the spare room subsidy – the bedroom tax: a symbol of an out of touch, uncaring Tory government that stands up for the privileged few – but never for you.

So we will scrap that tax. And what’s more I can tell you how.

We’ll scrap the bedroom tax by abolishing the shady schemes of tax loopholes for the privileged few which the Tories keep inventing. Tax cuts for hedge funds, the billion pound black hole created with a scheme for workers to sell their rights for shares, and by tackling scams which cheat the taxpayer in construction.

That’s what a One Nation Labour government will do. That’s a party that will fight for you.

The Tories will respond by arguing that Labour has abandoned its commitment to fiscal responsibility and returned to its old spending ways. But unlike on other issues, such as the benefit cap, they find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. A ComRes poll published today by the National Housing Federation (NHF) found that 59% of the public believe the policy should be abandoned, up from 51% when it was introduced in April. Four-fifths of Labour supporters (79%) favour its repeal, along with 65% of Lib Dems and 34% of Tories. 

And one doesn't have to look far for evidence why. As I noted, a survey by the NHF of 51 housing associations found that more than half of those residents affected by the measure (32,432 people), fell into rent arrears between April and June, a quarter of those for the first time ever. 

Ministers have defended the policy, which reduces housing benefit by 14% for those deemed to have one 'spare room" and by 25% for those with two or more, on the basis that it will encourage families to downsize to more "appropriately sized" accommodation. But they have ignored (or at least pretended to ignore) the lack of one bedroom houses available. In England, there are 180,000 social tenants "under-occupying" two bedroom houses but just 85,000 one bedroom properties available to move to. Rather than reducing overcrowding, the policy has largely become another welfare cut, further squeezing families already hit by the benefit cap, the 1% limit on benefit and tax credit increases (a real-terms cut) and the 10% reduction in council tax support. 

The measure is also coming under increasing fire from the Lib Dems. Shirley Williams described it as "a big mistake" at the party's conference and delegates passed a motion calling for "an immediate evaluation of the impact of the policy, establishing the extent to which larger homes are freed up, money saved, costs of implementation, the impact on vulnerable tenants, and the impact on the private rented sector." It also called for "a redrafting of clear housing needs guidelines in association with those representing vulnerable groups including the disabled, elderly and children." 

Whether or not the coalition eventually goes as far as scrapping the measure, to prevent Labour surfing a wave of public outrage, it is hard to see it surviving in its current form. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the TUC conference at the Bournemouth International Centre on September 10, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.