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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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.