Duncan Smith can't hide the death of "compassionate conservatism"

The Work and Pensions Secretary wanted welfare reform to be defined by Universal Credit. It has been defined by the bedroom tax.

After George Osborne began the year by promising to scythe another £12bn from the welfare budget in the next Parliament, Iain Duncan Smith's speech at the Centre for Social Justice, the think-tank he founded 10 years ago, is an attempt to reaffirm his original "compassionate conservative" mission. The message from the Work and Pensions Secretary will be that reform is not about saving money but about saving lives. In a conspicuous rebuke to Osborne, who frames welfare almost entirely as a fiscal issue, he will say: 

We would have wanted to reform the welfare state, even if we had no deficit. As Conservatives, we should hate the idea of people with unfulfilled potential languishing on welfare. Welfare reform is fundamentally about opportunity and life change.

The rhetoric is admirable but, nearly four years into this parliament, the reality is not. After multiple management and IT failures (with £40.1m of assets written off), the introduction of Universal Credit, Duncan Smith's masterplan to transform welfare and "make work pay", has been so slow as to render it almost invisible. At the end of last September, just 2,150 people were claiming the new benefit, 997,850 short of the original target of one million. When Duncan Smith complains today that "the present system makes criminals out of those trapped in its clutches" by "withdrawing up to 94 pence of every pound they earn" through means-testing, it will be a reminder of his failure to reform it in office. 

Rather than Universal Credit, it is Osbornite welfare cuts such as the benefit cap and the bedroom tax that have defined the government's approach. Duncan Smith will again defend the abolition of the "spare room subsidy", but it is something no "compassionate conservative" should. His claim that it has forced people to move to smaller council houses, freeing up space for larger families, ignores the reality that, in most cases, such properties simply don't exist.

In England, there are 180,000 social tenants "under-occupying" two bedroom houses but just 85,000 one bedroom properties free to move to. Rather than reducing overcrowding, the policy has simply become another welfare cut, further squeezing families already hit by the benefit cap, the 1 per cent limit on benefit and tax credit increases (a real-terms cut) and the 10 per cent reduction in council tax benefit. A survey by the National Housing Federation of 51 housing associations 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.

Worse, the policy takes no account of those for whom additional space is not a luxury but a necessity, most obviously the disabled. Of the 660,000 social housing tenants that have been affected by the bedroom tax, the DWP estimates that 420,000 are disabled. They now face the unpalatable choice of either falling into arrears (by paying an average of £728 extra in rent)  or downsizing to a property unsuitable for their needs. Yet, absurdly, Duncan Smith will claim that his welfare cuts "have helped people feel that bit more secure about their futures, feel more hopeful about their children’s lives and rekindle their pride in their communities". 

The effects of the household benefit cap have been similarly pernicious. To date, there is little evidence that the measure is achieving its stated aim of moving claimants into work (principally because few choose to live "a life on benefits"). In Hackney, one of the London boroughs where the benefit was piloted, a study found that just 74 of the 740 households affected had found work, a number no greater than one would expect without the cap given the regular churn of claimants. In many cases, the lack of affordable childcare continues to represent a insurmountable barrier to employment. Indeed, by requiring councils to relocate families hundreds of miles away, the cap actually reduces work opportunities by forcing them to live in an area where they have no employment history. 

Yet for all the human misery they have caused, these policies will save just a few hundred million between them (merely a rounding error in the social security budget of £201bn). But to judge the cuts on these terms is to misunderstand Osborne's motives. The benefit cap is less a serious act of policy than a political weapon designed to trap Labour ("the welfare party") on the wrong side of the argument and to perpetuate the belief that the unemployed are to blame for their own misfortune. With new proposals such as the abolition of housing benefit for under-25s and the restriction of child benefit to two children, the Chancellor is doing all he can to sharpen the divide between "the strivers" and "the scroungers". It is this poisoning of the debate, more than anything, that means today's speech is not the rebirth of "compassionate conservatism" but its funeral. 

Iain Duncan Smith speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad