Nick Clegg speaks at Bloomberg's central London headquarters on June 9, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Lib Dems are calling for the bedroom tax to be reformed, not scrapped

The party is splitting the difference again. 

The Daily Mirror leads on the news that Nick Clegg is calling for the bedroom tax to be scrapped. Even by Lib Dem standards, it's a dramatic U-turn that abandons any pretence of collective responsibility. 

But read the accompanying piece and it becomes clear that the position is more complex than presented. Rather than arguing for the policy to be abandoned (after a DWP analysis this week found that nearly 60 per cent of the 550,000 tenants affected are in rent arrears and only one in 20 have been able to move to a smaller home), the Lib Dems are in fact calling for it to be reformed.

Danny Alexander writes in the paper that disabled adults should be exempt from the measure and that no one should have their housing benefit cut unless they are offered a suitable smaller home. But this fall shorts of demanding that it is abandoned altogether (Labour's position). The principle that housing benefit should be reduced for those social housing tenants "under-occupying" their properties remains.

Significantly, however, the Lib Dems are reportedly happy with the "axe" headline. If so, they've created a major hostage to fortune. Should Labour table a motion proposing the abolition of the bedroom tax (as it surely will), they won't be able to support it. 

 

Here's Alexander's statement in full:

As a Liberal Democrat I want everyone to have the opportunity to have a secure and decent home.

We brought in changes to how housing benefit is calculated in the social housing sector with the best of intentions.

However, a recent report shows people are having to cut back on household essentials despite the help offered through Discretionary Housing Payments.

Therefore, we have reviewed our position so only those already in the social rented sector who turn down suitable smaller homes will see a reduction in their benefit.  These commitments will be in the Lib Dem manifesto and we will push for it as government policy right away.

This change, combined with a commitment to build 300,000 houses a year in the next Parliament, will build on the progress we have already made to address Britain’s housing problem.

All the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has done is formnally embrace the policy adopted by the party at its autumn conference last year. The motion passed by delegates called for "a redrafting of clear housing needs guidelines in association with those representing vulnerable groups including the disabled, elderly and children". It also argued that, until new guidelines are in place, 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".

The Lib Dems may yet use their manifesto to argue for the full abolition of the policy (as most party activists would wish), but they aren't doing so tonight. Once again, by splitting the difference, they are in danger in pleasing no one. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What David Hockney has to tell us about football

Why the sudden glut of blond footballers? A conversation I had with the artist back in 1966 gave me a clue. . .

In 1966, I went to interview David Hockney at a rather run-down flat in Bayswater, central London. He was 28 and had just won a gold medal at the Royal College of Art.

In his lavatory, I noticed a cut-out photograph from a newspaper of Denis Law scoring a goal. I asked if he was a football fan. He said no, he just liked Denis Law’s thighs.

The sub-editors cut that remark out of the story, to save any gossip or legal problems. In 1966 homosexual activity could still be an offence.

Hockney and a friend had recently been in the United States and had been watching an advert on TV that said “Blondes have more fun”. At two o’clock in the morning, slightly drunk, they both went out, bought some hair dye and became blond. Hockney decided to remain blond from then on, though he has naturally dark hair.

Is it true that blonds have more fun? Lionel Messi presumably thinks so, otherwise why has he greeted this brand-new season with that weird blond hair? We look at his face, his figure, his posture and we know it’s him – then we blink, thinking what the heck, does he realise some joker has been pouring stuff on his head?

He has always been such a staid, old-fashioned-looking lad, never messing around with his hair till now. Neymar, beside him, has gone even blonder, but somehow we expect it of him. He had foony hair even before he left Brazil.

Over here, blonds are popping up all over the shop. Most teams now have a born-again blondie. It must take a fortune for Marouane Fellaini of Man United to brighten up his hair, as he has so much. But it’s already fading. Cheapskate.

Mesut Özil of Arsenal held back, not going the full head, just bits of it, which I suspect is a clue to his wavering, hesitant personality. His colleague Aaron Ramsey has almost the full blond monty. Paul Pogba of Man United has a sort of blond streak, more like a marker pen than a makeover. His colleague Phil Jones has appeared blond, but he seems to have disappeared from the team sheet. Samir Nasri of Man City went startlingly blond, but is on loan to Seville, so we’re not able to enjoy his locks. And Didier Ndong of Sunderland is a striking blond, thanks to gallons of bleach.

Remember the Romanians in the 1998 World Cup? They suddenly appeared blond, every one of them. God, that was brilliant. One of my all-time best World Cup moments, and I was at Wembley in 1966.

So, why do they do it? Well, Hockney was right, in a sense. Not to have more fun – meaning more sex – because top footballers are more than well supplied, but because their normal working lives are on the whole devoid of fun.

They can’t stuff their faces with fast food, drink themselves stupid, stay up all night, take a few silly pills – which is what many of our healthy 25-year-old lads consider a reasonably fun evening. Nor can they spend all their millions on fun hols, such as skiing in the winter, a safari in the spring, or hang-gliding at the weekend. Prem players have to be so boringly sensible these days, or their foreign managers will be screaming at them in their funny foreign accents.

While not on the pitch, or training, which takes up only a few hours a day, the boredom is appalling, endlessly on planes or coaches or in some hotel that could be anywhere.

The only bright spot in the long days is to look in the mirror and think: “Hmm, I wonder what highlights would look like? I’ve done the beard and the tattoos. Now let’s go for blond. Wow, gorgeous.”

They influence each other, being simple souls, so when one dyes his hair, depending on where he is in the macho pecking order, others follow. They put in the day by looking at themselves. Harmless fun. Bless ’em.

But I expect all the faux blonds to have gone by Christmas. Along with Mourinho. I said that to myself the moment he arrived in Manchester, smirking away. Pep will see him off. OK then, let’s say Easter at the latest . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times