Iain Duncan Smith has had to defend the progress of Universal Credit. Photo: Getty
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That families can only just claim Universal Credit shows how disastrous it has been

The government’s reformed benefit programme is being rolled out to parents in the northwest today, revealing its slow progress.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has extended his “revolutionary” reformed welfare programme to some families in Britain for the first time today. The fact that parents, and initially just in parts of the northwest, are only just able to claim Universal Credit shows how much of a disaster the scheme’s implementation has been.

The term "Universal Credit" has quickly become a byword for government incompetence, IT failure, missed deadlines, and over-promising ministers, as it has encountered obstacle after obstacle, and been severely delayed as a result.

Although the problems with the scheme are well-known now, it is worth pointing out that this intended “revolution” in welfare distribution has been watered down to a very slow evolution. As the BBC reports, tens of millions of pounds had to be written off due to technical problems with the IT programme and also, according to reports, only 20,000 people are claiming it, rather than the 1m envisaged for this time by the DWP. Though Duncan Smith on the BBC’s Today programme this morning insisted that the number of people claiming is actually 40,000, this is still significantly lower than what was once the target.

The people already enrolled on the Universal Credit scheme so far have been single people and couples with no housing costs or family, ie. the simplest demographic to which to provide welfare, due to it being the least complicated in terms of the benefits it claims. Universal Credit prides itself on “simplifying” welfare provision by combining six existing benefits into one, so the focus so far on the least complicated claimants shows it is only very tentatively being rolled out.

On Today, Duncan Smith refused to accept that his scheme had so far only been targeting the “low-hanging fruit” of benefits claimants, saying, “we have deliberately set out to roll it out so each individual bit is tested… we’re now doing families. This is being deliberately done like this.

“It’s about making sure people can cope as they go into work, they can stay in work… If we do it carefully, and land it safely, they’re far better off.”

When asked about the ultimate deadline, due to the targets consistently having been revised down over the years, he said “it starts rolling out nationally from next year” and that rather than the original deadline of the bulk of people being on it by “approximately the end of 2017”, “we should have everybody on it by 2019”. He admitted that the initial deadline had been “artificial in the first place”.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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How the Democratic National Committee Chair contest became a proxy war

The two leading candidates represent the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders factions.

While in the UK this week attention has been fixed on the by-elections in Stoke-upon-Trent and Copeland, in the US political anoraks have turned their eyes to Atlanta, the capital city of the state of Georgia, and the culmination of the Democratic National Committee chairmanship election.

Democrats lost more than a President when Barack Obama left the White House - they lost a party leader. In the US system, the party out of power does not choose a solitary champion to shadow the Presidency in the way a leader of the opposition shadows the Prime Minister in the UK. Instead, leadership concentrates around multiple points at the federal, state and local level - the Senate Minority and House Minority Leaders’ offices, popular members of Congress, and high-profile governors and mayors.

Another focus is the chair of the national party committee. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is the formal governing body of the party and wields immense power over its organization, management, and messaging. Membership is exclusive to state party chairs, vice-chairs and over 200 state-elected representatives. The chair sits at the apex of the body and is charged with carrying out the programs and policies of the DNC. Put simply, they function as the party’s chief-of-staff, closer to the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party than leader of the opposition.

However, the office was supercharged with political salience last year when the then-chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was exposed following a Russian-sponsored leak of DNC emails that showed her leadership favoured Hillary Clinton as the party’s presidential nominee to Bernie Sanders. Schultz resigned and Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, took over as interim chair. The DNC huddled in December to thrash out procedure for the election of a permanent replacement – fixing the date of the ballot for the weekend of February 24.

The rancour of the Democratic primaries last year, and the circumstances of Schultz’s resignation, has transformed the race into a proxy war between the Clinton and Sanders factions within the party. Frontrunners Tom Perez and Keith Ellison respectively act as standard bearers for the respective camps.

Both are proven progressives with impeccable records in grassroots-based organizing. However Perez’s tenure as President Obama’s Labor Secretary and role as a Hillary booster has cast him as the establishment candidate in the race, whereas Ellison’s endorsement of the Sanders campaign in 2016 makes him the pick of the radical left.

The ideological differences between the two may be overblown, but cannot be overlooked in the current climate. The Democrats are a party seemingly at war with its base, and out of power nationwide.

Not only are they in the minority in Congress, but more than a third of the Democrats in the House of Representatives come from just three states: California, Massachusetts, and New York. As if that weren’t enough, Democrats control less than a third of state legislatures and hold the keys to just sixteen governors’ mansions.

Jacob Schwartz, president of the Manhattan Young Democrats, the official youth arm of the Democratic Party in New York County, says that the incoming chair should focus on returning the party to dominance at every tier of government:

“The priority of the Democratic leadership should be rebuilding the party first, and reaching out to new voters second," he told me. "Attacking Donald Trump is not something the leadership needs to be doing. He's sinking his own ship anyway and new voters are not going to be impressed by more negative campaigning. A focus on negative campaigning was a big part of why Hillary lost.”

The party is certainly in need of a shake-up, though not one that causes the internecine strife currently bedevilling the Labour Party. Hence why some commentators favour Ellison, whose election could be seen as a peace offering to aggrieved Sanderistas still fuming at the party for undermining their candidate.

“There's something to be said for the fact that Ellison is seen as from the Bernie wing of the party, even though I think policy shouldn't be part of the equation really, and the fact that Bernie voices are the voices we most need to be making efforts to remain connected to. Hillary people aren't going anywhere, so Ellison gives us a good jumping off point overall,” says Schwartz.

Ellison boasts over 120 endorsements from federal and state-level Democratic heavyweights, including Senator Sanders, and the support of 13 labor unions. Perez, meanwhile, can count only 30 politicians – though one is former Vice-President Joe Biden – and eight unions in his camp.

However the only constituency that matters this weekend is the DNC itself – the 447 committee members who can vote. A simple majority is needed to win, and if no candidate reaches this threshold at the first time of asking additional rounds of balloting take place until a winner emerges.

Here again, Ellison appears to hold the edge, leading Perez 105 to 57 according to a survey conducted by The Hill, with the remainder split among the other candidates.

Don’t write Perez off yet, though. Anything can happen if the ballot goes to multiple rounds and the former Secretary’s roots in the party run deep. He claimed 180 DNC supporters in an in-house survey, far more than suggested by The Hill.

We’ll find out this weekend which one was closer to the mark.

Louie Woodall is a member of Labour International, and a journalist based in New York.