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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Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.