Houses in Bath. Photo: Getty Images
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The welfare cap is government policy at its worst - but Labour won't challenge it

In a crowded field, the welfare cap is the coalition's worst policy. It's a failure of courage not to oppose it, says Caroline Lucas.

I cannot be the only MP whose email inbox is full to bursting with heartbreaking testimony to the hugely damaging impact of this Government’s savage welfare cuts.

And whilst the Chancellor continues to wage war against the young, the disabled, the poor –all dressed up in the name of reducing government debt - he gambles recklessly with our economy. Austerity, says the IMF, is wholly unnecessary. A growing number of economists also warn it’s paving the way for another crash. The Chancellor is shifting government debt onto households at a time when when unsecured lending - via credit and store cards, car financing and pay day lending – is at an all-time high. By 2020 levels of household debt in relation to income levels look set to exceed the previous pre-financial crash peak.

His approach is cruel, economically illiterate and, in the case of the welfare cap at least, legally questionable. A recent judgement casts doubt on the legitimacy of benefit capping, citing both the impact upon women – especially vulnerable single parents – and children, and the requirement on local authorities to house families should they become homeless. Restricting benefits to £20,000 without help to prevent local families becoming destitute, for example, and guaranteeing local authorities can meet additional Discretionary Housing Payments, might well prove to be unlawful.

The welfare cap appeals to the very worst in human nature. It’s part of a narrative that chooses to ignore the underlying causes of poverty or inequality, justifies punishing anyone out of work, and breeds resentment towards anyone who falls on hard times. Sadly, it’s a narrative that the shadow frontbench will not risk challenging – and many are even willing to go along with it.

We live in a country where wealth inequality is rising. Where people are dying because of having their disability benefits stopped. A society in which young people at risk could end up on the streets thanks to a twisted ideology that blames housing benefit for market rents being sky high, rather than 30 years of utter failure on housing policy.  A society in which welfare has become a dirty word and the social security safety net is in tatters.

My constituents deserve something better.

That means taking a stand against the bedroom tax, against scrapping the Independent Living Fund, and against refusing to allow asylum seekers to work. But it also means being bold enough to look for radical new ways of providing for each other: a new economic and social settlement that delivers security over fear, and more equitable outcomes to start with.

A settlement that recognises social security should be a contract between citizens, who then employ the state as an accountable mechanism to realise shared goals. After all, any government is our servant, tasked with distributing money that’s ours, not theirs. That gives any government a responsibility to properly reflect the collective contract that binds us together as members of society – by appealing to the very best of human nature, rather than the worst.

No matter what George Osborne and David Cameron try to tell you, social security isn’t handouts for scroungers. It’s a warm home and decent pay that covers the cost of living, rather than a choice between eating or heating.  It’s affordable rent levels, rather than going to bed each night with the fear of eviction hanging over you. Everyone paying fairly into our joint insurance scheme, and having the right to  draw on it without being demonised. True social security is valuing unpaid as well as paid work; prevention rather than crisis management; action to tackle both supply and demand in the labour market; and the benefits of realising every individual’s potential rather than benefits as a stick with which to beat people.

Social security as trust is at the very opposite end of the spectrum from the overarching message in today’s Budget. But giving people an equal share in what society has to offer, alongside responsibility – for themselves and for one another – is the real meaning of being in it together. It’s also how to put social justice, environmental sustainability and a more equal distribution of power centre stage.




Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.