Labour plans to challenge Lib Dem MPs with bedroom tax vote

The party's announcement that it will hold a Commons vote next Tuesday on scrapping the measure is a test of those in Clegg's party who have condemned it.

After flooding what he once called the "blank page" with policies, Ed Miliband is setting a series of parliamentary tests for Labour's opponents. Tomorrow, the party will use an opposition day debate to stage a vote on its proposed energy price freeze. Miliband will say in his speech today on living standards: "It is workable, it will happen if Labour wins the next election. And tomorrow Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs could vote for it. If they line up against it, the British people will know the truth: this government is on the side of the big energy companies not hard-pressed families." It's one thing for the coalition parties not to support an energy price freeze, but it's another for them to actively vote against it. 

Then on Tuesday, Labour will hold a similar vote on its pledge to scrap the bedroom tax. For Lib Dem MPs, this represents a particular challenge. As evidence has grown of the harm inflicted by the policy, Clegg's party has become increasingly uncomfortable with the government's stance. At its recent conference, the party voted in favour of a motion calling for "an immediate evaluation of the impact of the policy" and for "a redrafting of clear housing needs guidelines in association with those representing vulnerable groups including the disabled, elderly and children."

Until new guidelines are in place, it argued that there should be no withdrawal of housing benefit from those on the waiting list for social housing and that there should be an exemption for those who "temporarily have a smaller housing need due to a change in their circumstances, but whose need will predictably return to a higher level (e.g. whose children will pass the age limits for separate rooms within that period)".

But some senior figures went further, with Shirley Williams describing it as "a big mistake" and Charles Kennedy commenting: "I didn’t support it in the Commons and I’m not going to support it here. Mine is the largest geographic constituency in the whole of the UK – but it’s not untypical from any rural area, or for that matter urban area. In a rural area, you don’t have the flexibility, you don’t have the spare capacity in housing to move people vast distances." Another MP, Andrew George, has said: "It is one of the absurdities of the system that it is supposed to save money but it is likely to land the taxpayer with a bigger bill. It will inevitably force rural tenants out of villages where they have lived for years, taking them away from their extended families, schools and support networks. It will take key workers away from areas where they perform vital roles."

Clegg's recent emphasis on the "independent research" the government had commissioned on the policy was an attempt to buy some breathing space. He told the Commons: "Of course, I accept that there will be cases where for some households this change from one system to another creates real dilemmas which need to be addressed through the money we are making available to local authorities.

"To be honest, I have seen lots of widely different figures being cited about the impact of this policy - that is why we are commissioning independent research to exactly understand the impact of this."

While Clegg's words left the impression that he had announced a new review, the study was in fact announced in March by Iain Duncan Smith, who said then: "Going forward I will continue to closely monitor and adjust the implementation of the policy, including an independent evaluation by Ipsos MORI, the Cambridge centre for housing and planning research and the Institute For Fiscal Studies to ensure that the needs of these groups are effectively addressed in the longer term."

As luck would have it, the DWP will this week publish research on "public perceptions of the removal of the spare room subsidy". Should that study confirm public hostility to the measure, a significant number of Lib Dem backbenchers will feel encouraged to join Labour in the division lobby on Tuesday. 

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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.