Why Labour can't wait any longer to pledge to scrap the bedroom tax

After surfing a new wave of outrage against the measure, the party can't turn back this time.

Today provides further evidence that the bedroom tax is proving one of the coalition's most pernicious policies. A survey by the National Housing Federation of 51 housing associations has found that more than half of those residents affected by the measure (32,432 people), fell into rent arrears between April (when the policy was introduced) 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 benefit. 

David Orr, the chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said at its annual conference today:

"This is the most damning evidence yet to show that the bedroom tax is pushing thousands of families into a spiralling cycle of debt.

"If these figures are replicated nationwide, over 330,000 households could already be struggling to pay their rent and facing a frightening and uncertain future.

"What’s more, people can’t even move to smaller homes to avoid the bedroom tax because there aren’t enough smaller properties out there. Housing associations are working flat-out to help their tenants cope with the changes, but they can’t magic one-bedroom houses out of thin air. People are trapped.

"What more proof do politicians need that the bedroom tax is an unfair, ill-planned disaster that is hurting our poorest families? There is no other option but to repeal."

In response, Labour has issued its fiercest condemnation yet of the policy, with Liam Byrne declaring: 
These appalling figures prove once and for all that while this government stands up for a privileged few, a debt bombshell is exploding for a generation of people. While the nation's millionaires get a huge tax cut, thousands more now confront arrears and eviction from which they'll never recover. This is final proof as if we needed it, that the hated tax must be dropped and dropped now.
To date, Labour's criticism of the measure has been blunted by its refusal to pledge to repeal it if elected. At a recent session of PMQs, fixing his glare at the party's frontbench, David Cameron scornfully remarked: "You have ranted and raved about the spare room subsidy. Are you going to reverse it? Just nod. Are you going to reverse it? Yes or no? Absolutely nothing to say, and weak with it." 
 
But Byrne's words ("the hated tax must be dropped and dropped now") come as close as possible to committing Labour to abolishing the measure without actually doing so. Next week's conference is an opportunity to go one step further. While achieving economic credibility, Labour also needs policies that convince voters that it represents a genuine alternative to the coalition. A pledge to repeal the bedroom tax (which the public opposes by 48 to 40%) is a perfect example of the latter. And as Raf reveals in his column this week, Miliband will use his speech to outline policies that Labour "will definitely do if elected", signalling an end to the refrain "if we were in government now".
 
The main obstacle to promising to scrap the bedroom tax now is its cost. While the measure may well end up costing more than it saves, by forcing social housing tenants into the private sector (putting further strain on the housing benefit budget) and by increasing rent arrears, it's too early to prove that's the case. That means the repeal of the policy, which the DWP states will save £505m this year and £540m the next, will need to be funded through cuts or tax rises elsewhere. For Ed Balls, the man charged with preventing a 1992-style assault on Labour's "black hole", that is good reason for caution. 
 
But that challenge must be weighed against the danger of Labour raging against a policy while dithering on whether or not to keep it. Miliband's mantra is "credibility and radicalism" but while there's been plenty of the former in recent months, with Balls's decision to accept Osborne's current spending limits, many in the party feel there's been too little of the latter. At this year's conference, that will begin to change. And having surfed a new wave of outrage against the bedroom tax, Labour can't turn back this time. 

 

Campaigners protest against the bedroom tax in Trafalgar Square before marching to Downing Street on 30 March 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Owen Smith is naïve if he thinks misogynist abuse in Labour started with Jeremy Corbyn

“We didn’t have this sort of abuse before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Owen Smith, the MP challenging Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest, has told BBC News that the party’s nastier side is a result of its leader.

He said:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.

“It’s now become something that is being talked about on television, on radio, and in newspapers. And Angela is right, it has been effectively licenced within the last nine months.

“We’re the Labour party. We’ve got to be about fairness, and tolerance, and equality. It’s in our DNA. So for us to be reduced to this infighting is awful. Now, I understand why people feel passionately about the future of our party – I feel passionately about that. I feel we’re in danger of splitting and being destroyed.

“But we can’t tolerate it. And it isn’t good enough for Jeremy simply to say he has threats too. Well, I’ve had death threats, I’ve had threats too, but I’m telling him, it’s got to be stamped out. We’ve got to have zero tolerance of this in the Labour party.”

While Smith’s conclusion is correct, his analysis is worryingly wrong.

Whether it is out of incompetence or an unwillingness to see the extent of the situation, Corbyn has done very little to stamp out abuse in his party, which has thus been allowed to escalate. It is fair enough of Smith to criticise him for his failure to stem the flow and punish the perpetrators.

It is also reasonable to condemn Corbyn's inability to stop allies like Chancellor John McDonnell and Unite leader Len McCluskey using violent language (“lynch mob”, “fucking useless”, etc) about their opponents, which feeds into the aggressive atmosphere. Though, as I’ve written before, Labour politicians on all sides have a duty to watch their words.

But it’s when we see how Smith came to the point of urging Corbyn to take more responsibility that we should worry. Smith confidently argues that there wasn’t “this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism” in the party before Corbyn was voted in. (I assume when he says “this sort”, he means online, death threats, letters, and abuse at protests. The sort that has been high-profile recently).

This is naïve. Anyone involved in Labour politics – or anything close to it – for longer than Corbyn’s leadership could tell Smith that misogyny and antisemitism have been around for a pretty long time. Perhaps because Smith isn’t the prime target, he hasn’t been paying close enough attention. Sexism wasn’t just invented nine months ago, and we shouldn’t let the belief set in that it did – then it simply becomes a useful tool for Corbyn’s detractors to bash him with, rather than a longstanding, structural problem to solve.

Smith's lament that “it’s now become something that is being talked about” is also jarring. Isnt it a good thing that such abuse is now being called out so publicly, and closely scrutinised by the media?

In my eyes, this is a bit like the argument that Corbyn has lost Labour’s heartlands. No, he hasn’t. They have been slowly slipping away for years – and we all noticed when Labour took a beating in the last general election (way before Corbyn had anything to do with the Labour leadership). As with the abuse, Corbyn hasn’t done much to address this, and his inaction has therefore exacerbated it. But if we tell ourselves that it started with him, then we’re grasping for a very, very simple solution (remove Corbyn = automatic win in the North, and immediate erasure of misogyny and antisemitism) to a problem we have catastrophically failed to analyse.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.