Diane Abbott told The Staggers that she was opposed to an "arbitrary cap". Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.