Clegg leaves the door open to further welfare cuts

At his monthly press conference, the Deputy PM refuses to rule out reducing the benefit cap or limiting child benefit to two children for out-of-work families.

George Osborne has made it clear that he plans to introduce "billions" more in welfare cuts if the Tories win the next election, including a possible reduction in the £26,000 household benefit cap and new limits on child benefit, but where does Nick Clegg stand? At the Deputy PM's final monthly press conference of the year, I asked him whether he was prepared to consider a reduction in the benefit cap in the next parliament. He told me:

It’s not something that I’m advocating at the moment because we’ve only just set this new level and it’s £26,000, which is equivalent to earning £35,000 before tax...I think we need to keep that approach, look and see how it works, see what the effects are, but not rush to start changing the goalposts before the policy has properly settled down.

The key words here are "at the moment". While Clegg again declared that he believed the priority should be to remove universal pensioner benefits from the well-off ("you start from the top and you work down"), he was careful not rule out a cut in the level of the cap. Similarly, on the Conservative proposal to limit child benefit to the first two children for out-of-work families, while Clegg said there was "something a bit arbitrary" about "a government saying how many children the state will or will not help support", he refused to oppose the idea in principle. He said:

Is my priority returning to child benefit, as the first port of call, no it's not. But I’m not going to start drawing great circles around this policy or that policy. I want to look at it in the round.

Aware that he will be pushed to support these policies should he enter coalition negotiations with the Conservatives after the next election, Clegg is ruling nothing out. If, as seems likely, David Cameron avoids repeating his 2010 pledge to protect pensioner benefits (Clegg said he had "given up" on trying to persuade the Tories in this parliament), the two parties would likely reach an agreement on further cuts to working age welfare.

Elsewhere during the Q&A, Clegg was asked whether he had his own "little black book" of Lib Dem policies blocked by the Tories and cited housing, border checks and banking reform as areas where they had prevented progress. He said:

I have a fairly thick volume of things that I’d love to do if I was prime minister, which is not of course possible within a coalition with the Conservatives.

Housing today is a good example, I’ve wanted to see community land auctions, which I think would be a great way to get more land leased, to get more houses built on them; that’s something the Conservatives are very reluctant to endorse. I’ve been a long-standing advocate of a planned approach to garden cities, particularly in that part of the country between Oxford and Cambridge, where lots of people want to live, where we don’t have enough places for people to live. Again, the Conservatives have stopped that. I think we would have seen more housing on a quicker scale if we’d been on our own in government.

I alluded earlier to the fact that I find it very frustrating that despite the coalition commitment, which I wrote into the coalition agreement, on reintroducing exit checks at our borders, that seems to have been not acted upon as quickly as it should have been. I think we probably would, frankly, have acted a bit faster on some of the structural problems in the banking system. I’m sure we can compare endless lists.

Nick Clegg speaks at the Buhler Sortex factory on October 8, 2013 in east London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn only made one mistake - he should have taken tighter control of the Labour party

There is no doubt who could, and should, win the Labour leadership contest.

Brexit changes everything. In the weeks and months that come, mountains will move, parties split and seemingly indisputable laws of politics will be torn up. Monday night’s thousands-strong rally in Parliament Square in support of Jeremy Corbyn perhaps marked the end of the immediate period of mourning that has engulfed much of the left – other than in the shadow cabinet, where the result has merely has prompted an out-of-the-box coup attempt. 

We are right to mourn – and not for the price of sterling.  Things which were once said quietly over pints are now displayed on billboards. The bigotry and unpleasantness that characterised the campaign – and the tragic violence that surrounded it – were not random occurrences but a vision of the future.

There has been a mass politicisation of some sections of society, and on the worst terms imaginable. As we prepare for battle against an emboldened and rightwardly mobile Tory Party, we are also coming to terms with the fact that the cleverest and most dynamic elements of the British ruling class have seemingly gained a popular mandate for the idea that immigration is responsible for the worsening of living standards. 

Why Brexit happened

Many of us woke up on Friday in a country we did not recognise, which had rejected so much of what seemed like the future. Yes, the European project was tainted by its lack of democracy and service to corporate interests, but it represented real human and historical progress. It meant integration and the breakdown of national borders. So much of the tragedy of this vote is in the plethora of unknown losses – the connections and shared lives that will, quietly, never happen. 

There is, rightly, a yearning to understand why this has happened. The answer ought to be obvious. In an era defined by the strength and resonance of anti-establishment politics, and a vote in which economically left-leaning voters were crucial, Britain Stronger In Europe – a campaign with strong backing from portions of the Labour right – lined up experts and churned out leaflets featuring corporate bigwigs. Reading leaflets in the final week of the campaign, I half-wondered in exasperation if, next to Tony Blair and Karen Brady, Darth Maul (not even the A-list sith lord) would make an appearance.

Labour’s own campaign was undoubtedly better. But, hamstrung by the doctrine of reaching out to an imaginary centre ground voter, it merely mixed Stronger In’s obsession with economic growth statistics and Britain’s place in the world with rolling coverage of the fact that Alan Johnson used to be a postman. 

The chapter ends

Brexit marks the final end of one narrative of Britain’s future. Both the liberal left and the centrist projects that dominated Labour in the first decade of the 21st century assumed a progression towards an ever opener, ever more socially liberal society. Yet, just as history didn’t end when the Berlin Wall fell, xenophobia and prejudice are not things that belong to the past. From now on, the battle for social attitudes will be an insurgent task, bound up with the ability of the left to propose radical solutions to economic crisis and social disintegration. The only argument that could have stopped Brexit was that austerity and neo-liberalism caused the housing crisis, falling wages and stretched public services – not Romanians and Bulgarians. 

Watching the very same figures, whose preconceptions and lack of imagination lost the referendum, resign and blame Jeremy Corbyn should inspire a mixture of laughter and exasperation. Corbyn’s main mistake was not to take tighter control of Labour’s campaign from the outset – although, of course, had he done so he would have been roundly denounced. Like so many quandaries of the Corbyn leadership, the referendum campaign was characterised by a need for footwork and firefigting within the Parliamentary Labour Party rather than a strategic focus on winning the vote. The Labour right created an impossible situation and are now attempting to exploit the aftermath. If it wasn’t so desperate and irresponsible, it could be described as shrewd.  

What Labour needs

There should be no doubt as to who will win the leadership contest itself. Not only does Corbyn have an overwhelming base of support in Labour’s grassroots – he will, again, have the backing of major trade unions.  Since September, Momentum – a machine built with the explicit aim of defending the new Labour leadership – has formed over a hundred functioning local groups, and mobilised more than 100,000 supporters. The real danger of the leadership challenge is not that the left will lose, but that its instigators might be able to affect a shift in the politics of the party, especially on the issue of migration. 

In lieu of analysis, a number of placeholder phrases have proliferated on the left in recent days. For example, that it’s not racist to talk about immigration, and that we cannot brand working class Leave voters as racist because they are concerned about immigration. On one level, these phrases are obviously true. The problem with them – other than repeating verbatim the Conservative Party general election slogan of 2005 – is that they could lay the ground for turn against freedom of movement in the Labour Party. And while we must listen to voters without judgement, to give ground to the myth that misery and social incohesion are caused by immigrants – however much it may feel true in some places – is to give ground and credence to an idea that will divide and rot the labour movement from the inside out.

Rather than a miserable compromise on immigration, what Labour needs now is a strategy and a set of policies – not just visions and sentiments – to win back the ground lost in the English heartlands devastated by Thatcherism. This should include increased public funding for areas with high levels of immigration and a new deal for democratising the state at a local level. A Labour government must pledge a massive increase in the minimum wage, rent controls, a new programme of social housing, public and workers’ ownership, and a radical redistributive tax system.

The only argument against Brexit that made sense was that social crisis was the result of austerity. In the same way, the only long-term solutions must come from the left.