Diane Abbott told The Staggers that she was opposed to an "arbitrary cap". Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour MPs set to rebel against party over welfare cap

Diane Abbott and other backbenchers refuse to join leadership in backing Osborne's measure.

When George Osborne announced the level of the new cap on welfare spending in his Budget and the government's plan to stage a vote on the issue this week, many predicted Labour would walk into his "trap" and vow to oppose the measure. But immediately after the Chancellor's speech, Ed Balls defied expectations by announcing that his party would be supporting it. As he explained at his post-Budget briefing to journalists, "We'll vote yes on the welfare cap next week...Ed Miliband called for a welfare cap last year, in his speech in June, and we have agreed with the way in which the government has structured the welfare cap, what's in and what's out in the next parliament."

Since the cap (set at £119bn for 2015-16) excludes cyclical benefits such as Jobseeker's Allowance and housing benefit for the unemployed, spending on which fluctuates according to the state of the economy, Labour is prepared to accept it. As Balls alluded to, Ed Miliband used his speech on social security last summer to announce his support for a cap on "structural welfare spending", a pre-emptive move designed to spike Osborne's guns.

But while the Labour leadership has endorsed the government's cap (and will whip MPs in favour on Wednesday), a significant minority of Miliband's backbenchers are opposed to the policy. When I spoke to Diane Abbott this morning, she told me that she would not be voting in favour of the cap on the grounds that it will "encourage cuts in benefits, rather than long-term strategies to do things to bring the benefits bill down, like housebuilding, like a rise in the minimum wage ... I cannot support an arbitrary cap".

She warned that the measure was "part of a political narrative which demonises welfare claimants; most of the public don’t understand that half of welfare claimants are pensioners and that another quarter are in work." When I asked her whether she would be voting against, she told me that she was "consulting with her local party". But backbenchers John McDonnell, Ian Lavery and Mike Wood have all told The Staggers that they will be opposing the measure, with at least 10-15 expected to join them.

The size of the rebellion will be a good indicator of the number of MPs who could be expected to oppose future austerity measures introduced under a Labour government. If Miliband enters Downing Street with a small majority, he could be held hostage by his party's left. 

P.S. The Tories are keen to point out that as well as voting for the welfare cap on Wednesday, Labour will also be endorsing Osborne's current fiscal rules: to eliminate the structural deficit over a rolling, five-year period and to reduce the national debt as a proportion of GDP by 2015-16. But one Labour source pointed out to me that the Chancellor is still forecast to breach the second of these commitments (debt is not forecast to fall until 2016-17), remarking that "the Tories have rather messed this up if they want to highlight their broken fiscal targets".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.