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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.