The state helps Katie Price care for her disabled child. Photo: Getty
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What the Katie Price benefits row reveals about our paradoxical attitudes towards the system

The celebrity model has defended spending taxpayers’ money on care for her disabled son.

Viewers of Celebrity Big Brother have been yanked through their screens into a moral dilemma regarding care for the disabled, welfare handouts, and multimillionaires. And it looks like this unexpectedly stressful viewing experience has revealed a great deal about the nation’s paradoxical thinking regarding benefits.

Katie Price, the model and celebrity formerly known as Jordan, was explaining to fellow housemates on the show how she pays to care for her disabled son, Harvey. She clashed with the rabid rent-a-rightwing pundit Katie Hopkins over the fact that the state provides a car to drive her son to and from school each day: “he has a driver and a nurse who sits in the car with him”.

Hopkins criticised her use of taxpayers’ money on account of her wealth – the Mail describes Price as a “multimillionare”. In spite of Price telling Hopkins that it would probably cost her £1,000 to pay for a trip between London and Sussex herself, the latter insisted: “With the amount you earn, I'd find that tricky when you can afford it yourself . . . if you can afford to pay for something you should pay for it and you shouldn't rely on the government, I think that's wrong.”

Price’s defence was that she pays her taxes, and does not have a set amount of income each year – and what would her son do if she was paying for it herself, something happened to her, and she could no longer to fund his care privately?

She has also put out a statement on her website, calling it the “local authority’s duty” to pay for Harvey's transport, as he attends a special school outside the area where he lives. The statement also criticises the “government’s choice to close the special needs schools”, meaning Harvey has to go to a suitable school so far away.

What Hopkins’ reaction reveals is how nonsensical attitudes can be towards the way handouts are distributed. The disabled and most disadvantaged have been hit by far the hardest under a coalition fiddling around with where welfare lends a hand. And suspicion of state help from right-wing figures like Hopkins is propping up such unfair changes to the system.

The most pressing problem with the principle of universal benefits is that it aids the advantaged, not the disabled children of those who have ill-advised government cuts to contend with. It’s what benefits wealthy pensioners, who are given winter fuel allowance and free bus passes regardless of how comfortably off they are, and gives all infants – including those from well-off families – free school meals.

Granted, these aspects of the system are occasionally used to condemn the government, but it would take far louder opposition to change them, as they are a symptom of the benefits system being used brazenly by a government buying votes.

Changes to pensioners’ perks would mean risking the ever-precious grey vote, and free school lunches are a gesture brought in by a government attempting to appeal to middle-class voters, and – I’ve been told by a frontline source – can actually save the government money on Pupil Premium spending; a system put in place supposedly to help disadvantaged children.

So before commentators jump on Hopkins’ bandwagon of taxpayer tutting, it’s time to think: should we criticise a universal system for aiding disabled children who have to travel miles from home to get an education due to government choices, or should we concentrate our efforts on scrutinising a state using handouts to buy votes, hurting those who need them most in the process?

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.