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.