Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves is communicating Labour's tougher messages on immigration and welfare. Photo: Getty
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Labour continues tough line as it condemns Tories for ballooning housing benefit bill

The shadow work and pensions secretary is to slam the Conservatives for welfare spending, which follows her tougher stance on EU migrants.

Today, the shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves will predict that the housing benefit bill is set to double from its 2010/11 level by 2018/19, and will slam the Tories for its spending in this area.

It seems like an innocuous bit of summer oppositionery but there is more to it than that. Labour – which has been spooked by recent research highlighting Ukip’s threat to its vote in blue-collar areas, and is also aware in general of the popularity of tough stances on the welfare state and immigration – appears to be moving in a more hard-line direction this month. And Rachel Reeves is the messenger.

A few days ago, she suggested that migrants from Europe should be denied welfare until they have contributed tax. This is an idea that outflanked the Tories on immigration benefits, going one further than David Cameron’s announcement that EU migrants would only be allowed to claim benefits for three months. This is a tough line, and arguably Labour’s clearest message yet that it is facing up to the sensitive, yet electorally pivotal, subject of immigration.

Housing benefit is a subject similarly fraught with feeling among voters. This is mainly due to the coalition’s widely-reviled “bedroom tax” policy, which stirred up the public’s feeling against the government tinkering with welfare spending many of them rely on during their day-to-day lives. Yet bringing down welfare spending is undeniably popular with the electorate.

Housing benefit and bringing down the welfare bill is a tricky one for the Labour party, particularly as it voted against the government’s housing benefit cap. Ed Miliband has pledged to scrap the bedroom tax and the popularity of this could be seen as enough to inform his party’s messaging on housing benefit for the time leading up to the election, without specifically addressing how it would bring down the housing benefit bill itself. In other words, Reeves need not have said any more about it for the time being.

However, blasting the government on its welfare spending reveals Labour’s tougher new direction. It may just be tentatively tough at the moment, but it’s clear the party is willing to face the politically sticky subject of welfare spending, with Reeves to condemn the government’s record on welfare spending as one of “failure and waste”. She will also claim that the extra cost of the government’s hand-out between 2010 and 2018 will be £12.9bn – or £488 for each household in Britain.

Labour also makes itself vulnerable to the question: what is its solution to this ballooning bill? Reeves proposes an increase in the minimum wage and advocates the living wage to bring down the bill. She links the increased housing benefit spending to the coalition’s inability to solve the “cost-of-living crisis”; people in work still have to rely on state hand-outs to live. It’s a bold move for a party usually associated with being “soft” on welfare to open itself up to scrutiny on how it would bring the bill down itself. It will be interesting to see whether Reeves and her colleagues continue throughout the summer to ask some of the more difficult questions for the Labour party, as well as attempting to answer them.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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How should Labour's disgruntled moderates behave?

The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition. Sometimes exiting can be brave.

When Albert O. Hirschman was writing Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to decline in Firms, Organizations, and States he wasn’t thinking of the British Labour Party.  That doesn’t mean, though, that one of the world’s seminal applications of economics to politics can’t help us clarify the options open to the 80 to 90 per cent of Labour MPs who, after another week of utter chaos, are in total despair at what’s happening under Jeremy Corbyn.

According to Hirschman, people in their situation have essentially three choices – all of which stand some chance, although there are no guarantees, of turning things around sooner or later.

The first option is simply to get the hell out: exit, after all, can send a pretty powerful, market-style signal to those at the top that things are going wrong and that something has to change.

The second option is to speak up and shout out: if the leadership’s not listening then complaining loudly might mean they get the message.

The third option is to sit tight and shut up, believing that if the boat isn’t rocked it will somehow eventually make it safely to port.

Most Labour MPs have so far plumped for the third course of action.  They’ve battened down the hatches and are waiting for the storm to pass.  In some ways, that makes sense.  For one thing, Labour’s rules and Corbyn’s famous ‘mandate’ make him difficult to dislodge, and anyone seen to move against him risks deselection by angry activists.

For another, there will be a reckoning – a general election defeat so bad that it will be difficult even for diehards to deny there’s a problem: maybe Labour has to do ‘déjà vu all over again’ and lose like it did in 1983 in order to come to its senses. The problem, however, is that this scenario could still see it stuck in opposition for at least a decade. And that’s presuming that the left hasn’t so effectively consolidated its grip on the party that it can’t get out from under.

That’s presumably why a handful of Labour MPs have gone for option two – voice.  Michael Dugher, John Woodcock, Kevan Jones, Wes Streeting and, of course, John Mann have made it pretty clear they think the whole thing’s a mess and that something – ideally Jeremy Corbyn and those around him – has to give.  They’re joined by others – most recently Stephen Kinnock, who’s talked about the party having to take ‘remedial action’ if its performance in local elections turns out to be as woeful as some are suggesting.  And then of course there are potential leadership challengers making none-too-coded keynote speeches and public appearances (both virtual and real), as well as a whole host of back and frontbenchers prepared to criticise Corbyn and those around him, but only off the record.

So far, however, we’ve seen no-one prepared to take the exit option – or at least to go the whole hog. Admittedly, some, like Emma Reynolds, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper, and Rachel Reeves, have gone halfway by pointedly refusing to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.  But nobody has so far declared their intention to leave politics altogether or to quit the party, either to become an independent or to try to set up something else.

The latter is easily dismissed as a pipe-dream, especially in the light of what happened when Labour moderates tried to do it with the SDP in the eighties.  But maybe it’s time to think again.  After all, in order to refuse even to contemplate it you have to believe that the pendulum will naturally swing back to Labour at a time when, all over Europe, the centre-left looks like being left behind by the march of time and when, in the UK, there seems precious little chance of a now shrunken, predominantly public-sector union movement urging the party back to the centre ground in the same way that its more powerful predecessors did back in the fifties and the late-eighties and nineties. 

Maybe it’s also worth wondering whether those Labour MPs who left for the SDP could and should have done things differently.  Instead of simply jumping ship in relatively small numbers and then staying in parliament, something much bolder and much more dramatic is needed.  What if over one hundred current Labour MPs simultaneously declared they were setting up ‘Real Labour’?  What if they simultaneously resigned from the Commons and then simultaneously fought scores of by-elections under that banner?

To many, even to ask the question is to answer it. The obstacles – political, procedural, and financial – are formidable and forbidding.  The risks are huge and the pay-off massively uncertain.  Indeed, the whole idea can be swiftly written off as a thought-experiment explicitly designed to demonstrate that nothing like it will ever come to pass.

On the other hand, Labour MPs, whether we use Hirschman’s three-way schema or not, are fast running out of options.  The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition.  Voice can only do so much when those you’re complaining about seem – in both senses of the word – immovable.  Exit, of course, can easily be made to seem like the coward’s way out. Sometimes, however, it really is the bravest and the best thing to do.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.